Force of Nature Feature: Lisa Congdon

This summer we published Force of Nature—a Collection of Art & Stories Celebrating Fearless Women. Within its pages is a beautiful poster created by Portland-based fine artist, illustrator and author Lisa Congdon. She recently chatted with us about the outdoors and the next steps for diversity and inclusion.

But first, a bit about Lisa.

Being an artist wasn’t her first career. She started off working in public education, first as an elementary school teacher and then through a non-profit.

It was about 20 years ago that she began creating art. “Basically, I got bored at my job. I was unhappy and thought, what makes me want to get out of bed in the morning?” She wanted something positive to focus on, so she started making art at her kitchen table. “Executing your ideas is the hardest part! In the beginning, I was creating pretty bad things,” she tells us laughing and referenced a quote from Ira Glass that speaks to how nobody tells those who do creative work that when they are beginners their work won’t be good. But by going through a volume of work, the gap will close and one’s work will be as good as their ambitions—and that’s exactly what Lisa did. She kept drawing and painting and creating. Around this time the internet started becoming a medium. She began sharing her work on Flickr (think back before Instagram) and started a blog. Through this she met a community of artists online, and discovered that people wanted to buy her work.

A few years after, at the age of 39, she quit her job and became a full-time artist. Since then, she’s authored seven books and worked on projects with clients like MoMa, Martha Stewart Collections and REI—she designed a Force of Nature T-shirt in 2017.

What’s your favorite outdoor space?

It’s funny because I live in the Pacific Northwest now and I love the landscape here, but my favorite outdoor space is the desert. When I was about 35 I went on a road trip by myself through the desert of the southwest—California, Arizona, parts of New Mexico—and it was life-changing. I love the barren landscape of the desert. Because my artwork is so colorful, I think people might expect a different answer from me. But I love the desert plants, rock formations and sunsets. They are all so much more visible when you don’t have tons of trees in front of you. I love Joshua Tree, Sedona, Moab, Utah. Places like that are so incredible to me.

Why do you believe Force of Nature is important in and out of the outdoor industry?

I think it really wasn’t until the 1970s that girls—and in this case white upper-middle-class girls—were encouraged to engage in outdoor sports and recreation. We were the ones who had access to it. I was a kid in the ’70s and was part of that first wave. By the time I was 13 I was backpacking with groups of boys and typically I was the only girl. I think for me, this notion of myself as a powerful person came from those experiences, and not much from other parts of my life. Those experiences of being outdoors and hiking and being tired and getting up the next day and doing it all over again were really important for my development and sense of being in my body. And I think that’s why it’s important—because being outside and interacting with the elements makes girls feel strong. And we need strong girls in this world.

Can you speak to why you think representation plays such a big part in this conversation?

Having outdoor experiences and feeling powerful in nature has traditionally been a very white experience. Partly that’s cultural, but partly it’s also because those outdoor spaces were for white people and people who had vacation time and privilege. And that is changing, it has to change. We need to show every kind of person outdoors doing outdoor things. People of color, fat people, trans people and disabled people—the outdoors is for everyone. Let’s make it for everyone. And that means folks need to see themselves there.

What do you think the next steps are for women’s empowerment and inclusion?

The conversation has only begun, and that conversation is making a lot of people uncomfortable because it’s not just patting ourselves on the back for how far we’ve come. It’s also about how the status quo is no longer acceptable. I think we need to talk about the role of race and privilege. I think women of color and trans women need to take up space, not just outdoors but everywhere. That makes white women uncomfortable, and I think we could all stand to sit more with our discomfort at not being in the center. I think we need to listen, and not get defensive. I think we need to continue to support women and gender non-binary folks to speak truth against power. And I think we need to create new power structures in which white men are not at the center making and enforcing all the arbitrary rules that do not make sense for us.

Anything else you want to leave us with?

I am so glad REI is asking these questions. Bravo.

Follow Lisa’s work on Instagram @lisacongdon and if you haven’t read Force of Nature, you can read it here.

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