By Nicki Richesin, The Children’s Book Review
Published: January 9, 2012
We’re very pleased to welcome Lisa Congdon to The Children’s Book Review today. Lisa is an incredibly talented painter and designer much in demand these days. Her latest book Imogen, written by Amy Novesky (see our interview here), details the great passion Imogen Cunningham committed to her groundbreaking photography and her three growing boys. It’s a treat to carefully study the boldly painted illustrations Lisa has created in the book. We’re delighted to share our chat about becoming an artist, unusual animals, and all things Imogen!
Nicki Richesin: You’ve illustrated your first children’s picture book Imogen: The Mother of Modernism and Three Boys written by Amy Novesky. How did this project first come to you?
Lisa Congdon: My first kids’ book was the Dictionary of Ordinary Extraordinary Animals in 2011 for Running Press, which, while it is a dictionary, is a picture book for sure. But Imogen was a different kind of project for me because it was my first narrative children’s story. I actually got the job illustrating Imogen because the same art director with whom I worked on the animal dictionary, Sara Gillingham, was assigned to the Imogen book. We enjoyed working together on the animal dictionary, and she thought I might be a good fit for Imogen—so she recommended me to the author Amy Novesky and the publisher Cameron and Company.
NR: You come from a family of creative people and have been making things with your hands since you were very small. (You must have felt a sort of kinship with Imogen’s sons due to your artistic upbringing.) Yet you didn’t begin painting until you turned 33. Why do you think you waited so long to attempt/become a painter?
LC: I have no idea! I wish I had discovered it earlier in life. I left classroom teaching in my early 30’s to take a job in the nonprofit world. Teaching exhausted me, and I had been working very long days. So when I transitioned to an office job with regular 9-5 hours, I found myself with some free time for the first time since college. So I started swimming again, and also signed up for some painting classes. And I found quickly that I loved painting. A lot. So I started painting outside of the classes I took. That was 12 years ago. And the rest is history!
NR: Did you conduct extensive research about Imogen Cunningham’s life when illustrating and creating the initial sketches for the book? I love the bold color palette in your illustrations. Was that a choice you made based on your research?
LC: I did a lot of research. I was lucky because the author Amy Novesky handed me about five thick books about Imogen and her photography. One of them, Mother’s Days, was a book of photographs Imogen actually took of her family. So I had a bit of reference to start with. I did a lot of my own image searching on the internet. We wanted to make sure Imogen and her family looked like they had in real life. So I worked hard to get their likenesses.
As for the color, that was my own personal infusion. There are no color photographs of Imogen and her family or life. At least from the period of time I was depicting them. The author and publisher were drawn to my color palette and wanted to make sure I infused that into the illustrations to make them come to life. Red was a really significant color in Imogen’s life (i.e.: the red candle in her studio window, which is referred to in the book), and I tend to use a really bold red, almost a fluorescent orange vermillion in my work. So I think that’s what sold the publisher on my work. I used that red a lot in the illustrations in Imogen.
NR: You are on the advisory board for Makeshift Society “a clubhouse for creatives.” What have you learned from working with this cool group of collaborators and what’s in the works for Makeshift Society next?
LC: I am actually working at Makeshift as I write this! It’s a co-working space in San Francisco for creative professionals. I come here on days when I am not in my studio painting or drawing—on days when I have a lot of emails to respond to or things to write. It’s a really cozy, beautiful place to work, and I’ve learned that creative freelancers need a place to come and work together, to get away from the isolation of their home offices or typical cafes. People love working here.
I teach classes here on illustration, but we offer classes by creative professionals on a variety of topics, from business to social networking to photography and beyond. And we also have social mixers and pop-up shops for makers. We’re starting more partnerships with local business and small brands that are beneficial to the members—things that involve learning for the members from other people who are doing cool things, like running small business or making cool stuff.
NR: What were your favorite children’s books when you were a child?
LC: I do recall that as a very small child my favorite book was Put Me in the Zoo by Robert Lopshire. And then later on I read the Betsy-Tacy book series by Maud Hart Lovelace. And then after that I got into the usual stuff like Charlotte’s Web, Harriet the Spy, The Chronicles of Narnia, and stuff by Madeline L’Engle. I loved reading, and got more into it the older I got.
NR: What’s the most unusual fact you learned about animals from illustrating The Dictionary of Ordinary Extraordinary Animals?
LC: Sea otters are the only animals that use rocks as tools! I was obsessed with sea otters as a kid, so I remember this one.
NR: If you could invite any five people (historic figures or living) to dinner, who would you invite and what would you serve at your feast?
LC: Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Frida Kahlo, Anais Nin and Imogen Cunningham. I’d serve them my famous corn empanadas, lime cilantro rice and avocado salsa.
NR: You published A Collection a Day based on your year-long blog project. This seems like quite a daunting undertaking. Of your many collections, which is your most treasured?
LC: Oh, that’s impossible for me to answer! I love all my collections. Photographing 365 of my collections was a daunting project but it was also super fun, and I have no regrets.
NR: If you could be reincarnated as a character from children’s literature, who would it be and why?
LC: Harriet the Spy. Because she aspired to be a spy! And she carried a secret notebook. And she prevails in the end, despite (and maybe because of) her quirkiness.
NR: Which projects are you currently working on? Do you have a particular project you’re yearning to create?
LC: I just finished illustrating a book of Gertrude Stein poetry called Tender Buttons for Chronicle Books which comes out this spring. Chronicle is also publishing a book of my hand lettered quotes next year. I’m working on that right now. It’s been a super fun project.
Nicki Richesin is the author and editor of four anthologies; Crush, What I Would Tell Her, Because I Love Her, and The May Queen. She is the San Francisco correspondent for Du Jour and a frequent contributor to Sunset, The Horn Book, 7×7, The Huffington Post, and Daily Candy. Find her online at https://nickirichesin.com/.