Abigail Gray Swartz

02/17/17

One day a few weeks ago, I got a text from my mom: “Did you see the story about the woman who did the cover illustration for the next New Yorker?” she asked. She pointed me to a Huffington Post interview with Abigail Gray Swartz, an illustrator from Maine, who sent her artwork to New Yorker art director Francoise Mouly on a whim. A week later, Abigail’s work (pictured above) graced the cover. Aside from being excited by the story, my mom was also glowing because Abigail mentioned me in the interview (she is my mom, after all!). I knew after I read the Huff Post piece, that I had to interview Abigail myself. I wanted to learn more about her story.

Abigail has been a working illustrator for less than five years. While she studied fine art, she never studied illustration. In the last few years, she’s worked for such prestigious clients as The New York Times and Lenny Letter. And now, the creme de la creme: The New Yorker. What’s particularly inspiring to me is that the quick rise of her career has been built on leveraging relationships and pushing herself outside her comfort zone.

This interview is long. That’s because I wanted to dive in with Abigail and get to know her story. I think a lot of you will relate to it and be inspired by her. Like many people in the mid-2000’s, she took a long break from making art after she went to art school. The economy had tanked and she needed to get a job. She also moved around the country a lot for her husband’s job. But years later, once she got settled in one place (she now lives in Freeport, Maine), she dedicated herself to becoming a working artist. Abigail also currently juggles a lot of things — two small children and a husband who often travels for work. In spite of all of that, she has begun to build a thriving career as an illustrator.

I think there are a number of important lessons for all of us to learn from Abigail’s journey: get in to the ring, practice over and over until you get really good at your craft, simultaneously put yourself and your work into the world, talk to people about what you do, make work that reflects your passions and keep pushing yourself to pursue your dreams.

Without further ado, I present to you Abigail Gray Swartz.

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Lisa: First, tell us a little bit about you, your illustration career, how long you’ve been an illustrator, the kind of work you do & are interested in and that kind of thing.

Abigail: Thanks so much, Lisa, for this interview. It’s rather surreal since your book Art Inc and class on CreativeLive, not to mention your own story, really laid the foundation for my journey. So when you reached out to ask for an interview it was the cherry on top of my pretty awesome week!

Lisa: Oh, thank you! That made my day!

Abigail: I’ve been an artist all my life, from painting gnomes in my basement at the age of 5 to winning “draw your school teacher” portrait contests in first grade. Artists also run in my family. My mother is an artist, and my Aunt Deborah in England is an artist. I also grew up surrounded by family artwork hanging on our walls. Portraits by my great grandmother and oil paintings dating back even further to various relatives. So it was always something that felt rather meant to be.

In 2004 I earned a BA in Fine Art, studied art history and printmaking for a semester in Florence, Italy. In the fall of 2004, I lived with my sister in her studio apartment in NYC and took classes at The Art Students League of New York. Then that winter I moved to Alaska for a year to live closer to my future husband. The following year we moved back to the east coast where I enrolled in the Certificate Program at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. After a year of the program, I felt it was time to move on to their MFA degree. I earned my MFA from The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2008. I was married that summer, the economy tanked and I found myself working two retail jobs. Thus began a bit of a dry spell for my art. I wasn’t sure how to make money by being creative and the economy certainly wasn’t helping. And then life and two kids happened and we moved almost every year – from Delaware to Maine, then back to Delaware and from one rental to the next. While in the throws of being a new mom, I dabbled with selling my knitting, and then later selling handmade paper garlands on Etsy. In the fall of 2014 I committed to putting my MFA to use, I was determined to make it as an artist. I didn’t want to put being an artist on hold until I had an empty nest. I’ve been a professional illustrator since late 2014.

Lisa: You studied fine art. How did you get to illustration as a career path?

Abigail: As a mom who reads to young children frequently through out the day, I was reunited with my favorite children’s books. I realized I wanted to be an illustrator. I loved the idea of my own great, great grandkids holding a book that I created. So I bought your book, Art Inc, took your CreativeLive class and in every free moment I practiced your advice: “The more work you make, the more work you get!” (I still have this pinned up in my studio). I painted every moment I could, chipping away at what I wanted to focus my art around, often times trying to capture the precious and comical fleeting moments of life with young children. After years spent printmaking and building large installations in graduate school, I had to once again familiarize myself with watercolor. At the time my husband was working 18 hour shifts often back to back as an EMT in Wilmington, DE. So I had to really carve out my own time to paint. It was a hard few years. Then my neighbor had an essay that was accepted by The NY Times, but they needed an illustrator and she told them “I know an illustrator!” and thus started my freelance career with The Times. In 2015 we moved back to Maine and to a community that would be ripe with artistic opportunities. Since our return, I’ve been in a number of group art shows, I also had my first solo show last summer, and this past December I started “Tidings” a seasonal art and craft fair with my friend Julie Persons.

{Work for The New York Times}

Lisa: So, a couple weeks ago, your artwork landed on the cover of The New Yorker. For our readers who might not be familiar, The New Yorker is one of the most prestigious clients you can have as an editorial illustrator. You sent the work in on a whim. It’s a fantastic story. Tell us about what happened.

Abigail: Yes, It’s pretty exciting and makes for a good story! It’s many illustrators’ dream to do covers for The New Yorker. I’ve had several covers pinned up in my studio as inspiration. I even had this goal listed on my 3-5 year career plan, so it was on my radar, but I didn’t realize that it was within my reach just yet. After working freelance as an illustrator for the past three years, I have pitched and submitted my artwork to many places. Sometimes you hear back, often times you don’t, or if you do they don’t have a budget. I actually sent The New Yorker some cover ideas last winter and didn’t hear back. Then in the spring of 2016 Bob Mankoff and Emily Flake came to the PMA in Maine for a screening of their New Yorker documentary and to sign their new books. And like a total fan-girl I nervously introduced myself to them. Emily and I connected on the challenge of juggling motherhood with our creative fields and that was that. But that meeting and watching the documentary, reaffirmed that I wanted to do The New Yorker covers and that I should keep working towards this goal.

After the elections, Francoise Mouly, Art Director at the New Yorker, put out a call for female and female- identifying artists to submit artwork to her new Women’s March magazine Resist. Figuring this would be a good introduction, I submitted a lot of art, and they chose my Rosa Parks portrait for their first issue.

After attending the Women’s March in Augusta Maine, I mocked up my idea for a New Yorker cover in a quick watercolor sketch and sent it to Mouly’s assistant, but the email bounced back so I thought, what the heck, I’ll send it directly to Mouly. I sent it, and didn’t think anything of it. Then that night, after the kids were bathed and in bed, I checked my email. I kinda lost my “stuff,” because not only did they get back to me, but they sent me a mock up of my sketch with The New Yorker cover lines on it! And I thought: BOOM! But really what began that night was a wild week of sketches and phone calls.

Lisa: So they were interested in your cover, but it wasn’t a done deal…yet.

Abigail: Yes. On Tuesday night I sent them a scan of the first painting, on Wednesday morning my 3 year old was home sick from preschool and they emailed me and asked for another painting. There were some minor edits to make and Francoise said, “Since you are fast, why don’t you do a new painting instead of us tweaking it in Photoshop?” And since the answer is always “yes” in these cases, I said “will do.” So I dropped off our 6 year old daughter at school, gave our 3 year old son some crackers and tried to keep him from sneezing on my painting. I’ve worked on many fast deadlines before so I tried to keep telling myself this was just “any other normal job.” I finished the painting and scanned it in time for their mid-day meeting. Mind you, this whole time I was not sure my cover would be chosen. They were weighing my cover with other covers, and there was the possibility that if anyone else painted a Rosie in a pussy hat, be it on social media or another magazine, then my cover would be scratched. By 3 pm on Wednesday they called and asked if I could Fed Ex the art to them in NYC. “Kids, get in the car!”

I sent all of the paintings to them that night and then hit refresh on the tracking every few hours to monitor it’s voyage. They emailed me at noon on Thursday to tell me they had the artwork and would be in touch.

Lisa: That sounds so nerve-wracking!

Abigail: I sat on pins and needles for the rest of the day, yo-yo-ing between, “It’s no big deal” to “Yes, it is a big deal”. By the time my husband came home for dinner I told him I was convinced it was a “no-go.” Then after dinner I got a phone call from NY and Francoise said, “So it looks like it’s a go. Can I get a quote form you about your experience at The Women’s March?” When I got off the phone I exhaled and then cried. The kid’s asked my husband, “Is mom okay?” and he told them, “Yes these are good tears, your mom has wanted this for a long time.” The New Yorker shared my cover the following morning on Friday when the February 6th issue went to press. I joked on Facebook that day how the whole process felt like giving birth, finals week, and my wedding day all wrapped into one week, but I couldn’t tell anyone the entire time. It was a roller coaster.

Lisa: That is so intense! Tell us also about the cover. What inspired the imagery?

Abigail: I am a knitter and leading up to the Women’s March, I loved watching on Instagram all of my friends and strangers knitting hats for one another. The act of knitting was already a bonding activity, and I knew it would be a strong visual the day of the March. After the March I read a newspaper headline that said, “She the people” and I thought: “She the People, the revolution will be handmade”. And I started thinking about how we are at a tipping point in our country, and it felt reminiscent to preparing for battle. The March was about fighting for equality and to protect women’s rights. So I thought back to WWII and how women “manned” the home front while the boys were off fighting the Nazis. Sacrifices were made, goods were rationed, women knit for the soldiers and worked in the factories for them. But today in 2017, not only are we reclaiming the word “pussy” from a president who bragged about grabbing them, but we are also making something for ourselves as a symbol of this reclamation, and we are knitting for ourselves. And that is also a modern evolution; women are doing something for themselves for a change. So naturally Rosie felt like the perfect symbol for these themes I was thinking about.

Lisa: What has the response to the cover been? I am always so curious about what it would be like to put something with such a strong point of view on the cover of a magazine. Tell us about what happened after the cover came out?

Abigail: The response has been wonderful and at times overwhelming. My friend told me the night the cover was announced that I should hire someone to manage my social media and emails for the following week. I thought this would be a non-issue. But it turns out she was right. Honestly I was pretty surprised that so many people wanted to know about the artist behind the cover, I haven’t been in that position before. In the past my illustrations accompany an essay, or an interview where the feedback usually falls on the essay’s content and not as much on the art. Local newspapers asked for interviews and I obliged. I also did an interview with Canada’s CBC radio.

I received congratulatory emails and personal stories from readers, about their own familial “Rosies”. And after my Huffington Post interview, my online sales went through the roof and it took me a solid week working late into the night to process all of the orders. A very happy problem to have! After the interview I also received emails from people from the U.S. and abroad who shared similar political views as well as their own March experiences.

Lisa: So exciting! I’m curious, your cover could be considered controversial. Was there push back?

Abigail: Of course, there was criticism of the cover. There was a bit of push back about being a white woman painting a woman of color. I read comments asking, “Why wasn’t an African American artist chosen for this? They would have done a better job” and so forth. I don’t think people understood that artists pitch ideas to The New Yorker. I’m sure that if this was someone’s idea at the magazine then perhaps they would have reached out to an African American artist to paint this version of Rosie. But you have to appreciate the fact that the magazine respects intellectual property; I pitched it and they didn’t ask to give my idea to another artist, but rather they honored my idea and had me execute it.

Lisa: The actual Rosie the Riveter is white. Say more about why you painted her as a black woman.

Abigail: It was important that Rosie is a woman of color, and I painted her as such to give children, and especially children of color, another visual of representation. I wasn’t trying to talk about something bigger than that, but I understand how it packs a punch and needs to be considered and discussed. I also heard from the trans community that the pussy hat does not represent them.  I understand this, and I agree. It’s also asking a lot of one magazine image to cover such a wide spectrum. We have a lot of work to do within the women’s movement. White women need to show up for The Black Lives Matter protests. Trans women need our help; they are in crisis when it comes to domestic violence and hate crimes.

Lisa: Let’s talk about risk taking & making bold moves for a moment. I mean, in truth, sending your artwork to a major magazine actually has no real risk involved — except the risk of rejection (or just not hearing back), which can feel painful, and which is why most people wouldn’t do it. Would you consider yourself a risk taker in life in general? Or is this new for you? Have there been other “risks” or bold moves you’ve made in your art career before this one?

Abigail: I don’t think of myself as a huge risk taker. Sometimes I can mull over a room’s paint color, or second-guess myself on something very minor. But I guess you could say at its core my career is a risk in some fashion. For the first few years I would have to wake up and recommit myself to my dream of being a professional artist and not cave into the criticism that what I was doing wasn’t a “real job.” I had to take the negativity and doubt of the naysayers and turn it into jet fuel to launch my rocket. Stubborn like a bulldog, I was determined to prove them wrong.

My friends call me a “go-getter.” I think I’ve always been enthusiastic in this way, but I think the crunch of motherhood, of the “longest shortest time” conundrum, made me go after things with more intention, enthusiasm and determination. It is also important to me for my kids to see that I am passionate about my talents, and that I am driven and a hard worker and how hard work can pay off. I also figure, What do I have to loose!? Rejection used to bother me, but in a short time I built a callous, and it doesn’t affect me in the same way as it did at the beginning. Now I just view rejection as a free moment to pursue another project I have on the back burner, or to keep painting and drawing in order to improve.  And once you feel that way about rejection, asking and pitching isn’t as daunting as it once was.

Lisa: I think that is such a healthy attitude. And I think it’s something that comes with risk — the more you take risks and are rejected, the more you realize risks won’t destroy you. Let’s talk about your work for another prestigious client, The New York Times, which it turns out also happened as kismet for you. Tell us about how that relationship began and what the process of illustrating for the Times is like.

Abigail: While we were living in Pennsylvania from 2014-2015, I lived next door to a writer, Margaret Gilmour. Our kids played together, and we would go on long walks where we talked about working from home, pitching to editors, and about her children’s book. In February of 2015 she texted me and asked if I could meet her at the fence to talk about something. She told me that her essay was accepted by The NY Times parenting blog “Motherlode” and they were between illustrators. She told them that she lived next door to an illustrator, and she gave my email to the editor, K.J. Dell’Antonia. As a result, I illustrated Margaret’s piece and afterwards thanked K.J. and asked her to please think of me if she needed art in the future. She hired me the next day and I was thrown into editorial illustration as the “artist in residence” of the Motherlode. It was a 3 month residency that turned into 6 months. I would average about 2-3 illustrations a week. There was not an art director at Motherlode to discuss the artwork with, so in many ways I was both the art director and the illustrator, which was another wonderful challenge. K.J. would email me a stack of essays with some deadlines attached and I would get to work trying to sum up an essay with one image without giving away the ending. It was the perfect on the job training and I love all of the writers I met through my time at Motherlode. I have called on them for industry advice, and they have hired me to illustrate their family holiday cards!

In the winter of 2016 The Motherlode merged with The NY Times “Well” department and is now called “The Well Family.” I created an illustration for them last spring for the foster diary series, that piece is still one of my favorites.

{Work for Lenny Letter}

Lisa: That is a great story. And it just goes to show you the power of personal relationships and putting yourself in potentially scary situations as a new illustrator. You never know what will lead to an illustration gig or where that gig will lead! While we are on that topic, tell us about working with Lenny Letter, another exciting client and great story.

Abigail: Lenny Letter is really great to work with. My introduction to the women at Lenny was like everything else in my career: kind of casual, random and magical. My English cousin emailed me their first letter and told me I should reach out to them to do portraits. I did but didn’t hear back, so then I tagged them in a Gloria Steinem portrait I shared on instagram, giving a shout out to their recent interview with her. Later that night they shared my Lucille Ball portrait with accompanying quote on their own Instagram account, and I was over the moon. Then they got in touch that week and I’ve had the pleasure of painting the portraits of some amazing women over the past year and a half. They pay their artists well and they pay promptly- both are signs of respect. I once thanked them for their promptness and they said they’ve all worked freelance at some point and they know how tough it can be to wait on a check or to not get paid well. I also had the honor of illustrating Lena Dunham’s election piece! That was a fun story. I emailed them to throw my hat in the ring to paint the portraits of the new female representatives who were elected, and they got back to me that day and said, actually we have another project for you. Could you get us this art by the end of the day? I did. And it was my experience working for The NY Times on tight deadlines that allowed me to get this done so quickly, which in turn gave me a solid footing for painting The New Yorker cover with a quick turn around.

Lisa: What I love about this story is that you always said “THANK YOU” and “I WOULD LOVE TO WORK WITH YOU AGAIN.” I have learned that those words to an editor or art director will get you so far. That leads me to my next question — editorial work requires good communication and responsiveness, things like promptness, quick thinking and fast turn around. Was it always your intention to be an editorial illustrator?

Abigail: It was not always my intention to be an editorial Illustrator, but I have really enjoyed my assignments. Initially I wanted to illustrate children’s books, paint murals, and design wall paper and fabric. But after speaking with some folks in the biz, I was told that books can take years, and if I needed fast money, editorial work would give me an instant paycheck and would allow me to develop my illustration career while contributing to our household’s monthly income. The editorial work was perfect for me, because at that time my kids were really little, my husband was working all the time, and having an assignment was easier to work on under those circumstances, rather than trying to rely on my brain to draw something other than how tired I was! But now that the kids are in school, I have more time to dedicate to bigger goals. I want to create something you can hold in your hands or experience in person. Thus moving towards books, magazines, murals, and surface design etc. The editorial side of my career has given me the experience, the skills of working fast, the connections, and the confidence to start pursuing these other areas.

Lisa: Tell us about that. What other interests do you have as an illustrator? What are your hopes and dreams for your career?

Abigail: I love what you often say, Lisa, about diversifying your career with several outlets that way if something grows quiet the other piece of the puzzle will continue to bring in money or inspiration, and how these pieces will often ebb and flow throughout your career. I’ve also taken to heart another tip you once shared, if there is something you are interested in, pursue it. It’s as simple as that, we don’t have to be stuck doing one thing. So I’ve tried to do these two things with my own career.

In addition to editorial illustration work, I have an Etsy shop and another online shop where I sell cards and prints. I’m also selling my cards and prints through several wholesale clients in Maine, but this year my goal is to pick up more out of state wholesale accounts. I want to get back to screen printing bags and tea towels, outsourcing that task. I’ve also written several children’s books. After the New Yorker cover, I am shopping them around this year. This year I am also collaborating with an interior decorator on designing a fabric pattern. Fun story: we met through a portrait I was commissioned to paint for Atlanta Home Magazine of the Ladies from the 80’s tv show “Designing Women” (how cool is my job!?). It accompanied his article about his love for the show. And I got the Atlanta Home Magazine gig when the art director saw my work for Lenny Letter! The manifestation of your saying, Lisa: “The more work you make, the more work you get!”

Lisa: Being an activist is something that is clearly important to you and to your artwork. Has it always been part and parcel of what you draw and paint, or is this something that’s happened more recently? Tell us about the evolution and what it means to you.

Abigail: I’ve always been very “fired up” about right and wrong. Growing up I would listen to my grandmother talk about all of the letters she would write to her senators, or organizations that she disagreed with. I loved watching her tap away at her type writer. When I go for stuff with vigor, my husband will look at me and say, “You got some of Grams in yah!” and give me a wink. In college I began to approach some political themes within my work but it wasn’t until taking some print making classes at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts that I really began to explore political topics.

I was once advised to not be too political on Twitter or with my art, that it could burn some bridges for my career. But it’s such a natural part of who I am, I read and talk about political issues all the time, thus it was only natural for it to come bubbling out into my artwork. But I am cautious to strike a balance, I want to keep it positive and empowering rather than depressing and dark. SO I have the inspiring women portrait series with accompanying quotes and I designed Women’s March merchandise leading up to the march that supports the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. My approach is to keep building up our community and to find ways to use art to inspire and lift people up.

{Work for The New York Times}

Lisa: What advice do you have for artists who would love to have their work on the cover of the New Yorker or something equally as prestigious?

Abigail: The times I heard “yes” and the times I heard “no” were both stepping stones that equally created the path to where I am today. Sometimes you have to trust the journey you are on, but continue to be proactive enough to really go for things! Everyone has self doubt and you have to regulate the critical voice in your head. If you get an opportunity to show someone your work, show it to them! I did this with my first email with K.J. at the New York Times. I didn’t just send her one sketch and one idea, I sent her several sketches and several different ideas so she could see my thought process and my range. I did this again when I submitted to Mouly’s “Resist.” I sent her a variety of work so she would remember me.

When it comes to editorial work, pitch to people often. I usually send query emails on Monday or Tuesday, because in the editorial world, decisions are often made on Tuesday or Wednesday because Thursday and Friday are when the bigger traffic pieces are published. Or in the case with The New Yorker, they go to print on Friday. Always be polite and willing to rework something. If ideas are not coming together over email, ask for a phone call with the art director. And if you get a “no” take it as an opportunity to work on your personal projects that have been patiently waiting. There is no such thing as wasted effort, it all works together to support your career in some fashion.

Also, be a sponge, keep yourself open to ideas be they something you’ve read, heard, or seen. I’ve kept a note on my phone over the past several years called “The New Yorker” where I would jot down cartoon and cover ideas. I also have a note called “product ideas” and photo albums appropriately labeled for different bodies of work.

Write down your goals and tack them up in your studio. This January, inspired by Tara Gentile’s podcast “Profit, Power, Pursuit,” I wrote down: “What is it at the end of the year that I would like to say I accomplished?”And then I worked backwards and came up with monthly to-do lists to help me achieve these goals. I’m still stunned that I can cross off “The New Yorker cover” in the first month. In truth, this goal has been updated to “Continue to do covers for The New Yorker.”  I’m learning and manifesting that there is something really powerful about verbalizing your goals and dreams and then putting in the hours. And I love the quote by Zora Neale Hurston, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” I’ve had many years that were full of questions, but there will always be years that answer those questions. And so far this year is starting to answer my questions.

Lisa: Thank you for sharing your story and wisdom with us, Abigail! I look forward to following along on your journey!!

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New Quilt Pattern!

01/26/17

Friends, I’m so excited to let you know that one of my paintings has been turned into a quilt pattern — that you can purchase! I’ll get to that in a moment, but first: the story behind the quilt.

Some of you may remember that last year, I was a judge for the 2016 QuiltCon. QuiltCon is a competition of  modern quilts. You can read more about it here. Last January (so about a year ago), I traveled to Los Angeles for the judging. I was joined by two master quilters. Long story short, looking at hundreds of quilts that week inspired me endlessly. I wrote about the experience here.

One of the pieces I made when I returned from QuiltCon was this piece, which I called Los Angeles:

The organizers of QuiltCon asked me if they could turn this painting into a quilt design and I happily said yes! You can see the final quilt they made as a sample below (which at some point will become mine!):

You can purchase the pattern here.

Have a great Thursday!

CATEGORIES: Inspiration | Paintings
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Melissa Bahen: Scandinavian Gatherings

11/30/16

scandinaviangatherings

As many of you know, I am a Scandinavio-phile. I think I just made that word up, but essentially what I mean is that I love all things Scandinavian — traditions, folk pattern, vintage design, modern design, clothing, textiles, dishwater, architecture, etc, etc, etc. So I was so excited when my friend Melissa Bahen — blogger over at LuluTheBaker.com — published Scandinavian Gatherings: From Afternoon Tea to Midsummer Feast.

A little backstory: I first met Melissa last year, when she and her friend Joy invited me to speak at their Portland-based creative conference The Hello Sessions. I gave a workshop in 2015 at the conference, and this past year I was the keynote speaker. Melissa and Joy are two of the warmest, loveliest women I have ever met, and working with them was a great experience. This year at the conference, Melissa had copies of her then-very-new book Scandinavian Gatherings sitting on a table. I immediately swooped one up and began drooling over the contents. A few weeks later I had the privilege of interviewing Melissa about the book for my Interviews with People I admire series. Below you can also see some of the gorgeous images from the book. Know anyone who is in love with all things Scandinavian as I am? Hint: they might like this book for a holiday gift!

And without further ado, I present to you Melissa Bahen! We discuss many things, including her path, the story behind the book, the process of making it, and some of her favorite parts.

melissa-bahen-by-katy-weaver__2016

Lisa: Melissa, I am so happy to have you on my blog. I’m especially excited about your new book. But before we get into that, I’d love for you to tell my readers a bit about you. Where are you from originally? What was your path to becoming a food blogger?

Melissa: Hi Lisa! Thank you so much for having me here today, and I’m delighted that you like the book! To tell you a little about myself, I grew up in Las Vegas, which is also where I met my husband, got married, and had my first child. After he finished grad school, we moved up to Oregon, where we live now. I would have been content to stay in Las Vegas forever because my job was there and my family was there, but my husband had spent childhood summers in Oregon and really loved it. And it offered us the lifestyle we both dreamed of: farming and gardening and living on some land. You really can’t get that very easily in Las Vegas!

I started Lulu the Baker in 2008 after joining a group called The Daring Bakers. I think it’s still going strong under the name The Daring Kitchen. It’s basically bloggers and bakers and food enthusiasts from all over the world who make the same “challenge” recipe every month. Some months have very specific requirements where everybody makes exactly the same thing, other months give you more flexibility in choosing flavors, etc. It was one of the original, online bake-along groups, and you had to have a blog to do it, so I started Lulu the Baker. I didn’t tell anyone I knew about it, but one day, one of my sisters left a comment on my blog saying, “I bet you didn’t think anyone would find this!”

scandinavian-gatherings_danish-townhouses_photography-by-charity-burggraaf

Lisa: That is a great story. I love the power of the internet! Recently you published a book called Scandinavian Gatherings. I just about fainted when I saw it because to say I am obsessed with Scandinavian design, culture and traditions would be an understatement! Tell us about how this book came to be. How did you think to create it? Why Scandinavian Gatherings? I take it you have Scandinavian heritage?

Melissa: I do have Scandinavian heritage! My mom’s dad, my Poppy, is full-blooded Norwegian. He was born here in the US to immigrant parents, and lived in Norway for a few years in his late teens. Then he and my grandma, Nana, lived in Sweden for 3 years when I was in college. My family has always been very proud of our heritage. As kids, my brother and sisters and I loved being Norwegian. It was the coolest heritage we could imagine!

My grandpa has always been a big idea man, and he said I should write a book about my Scandinavian heritage for an English-speaking, American audience. I thought it was a brilliant idea, and that was how the seed for the book was first planted.

Lisa: Tell us more about the book — what’s in it, what people can expect when they pick it up, and how people can use it.

Melissa: The book is a collection of recipes and projects inspired by the flavors, customs, and culture of Scandinavia. Each chapter includes menu ideas, recipes, and decor-related projects for a simple gathering inspired by a Scandinavian holiday or season. I was really passionate about having both recipes and projects in one book, because I think they go so beautifully together, and really present a full, well-rounded snapshot. They’re both equally important parts of entertaining. And I like cooking AND making things, so I was loath to chop out either of those aspects of the book.

Scandinavian Gatherings has really appealed to people with some Scandinavian heritage so far, or people whose partners have Scandinavian heritage. I’ve had more than one person buy a copy for each of their siblings, or all of their sisters-in-law, or their friend who just married a Swede. People love to explore their heritage. The book also appeals to readers like you who are really interested in the Scandinavian lifestyle. This book is a really beautiful, accessible way to get a little introduction to some Scandinavian flavors, some style, some traditions. And then for everyone else who doesn’t fit into one of those categories, it’s a really solid, lovely, well-made book.

There are great recipes for breakfasts, dinners, salads, soups, cookies, cakes–they’re all delicious and can hold their own even on an ordinary day where you’re not throwing some kind of party. If you just need a good cake recipe, it’s got several of those. If you want to try something new for dinner, it’s got delicious dinner ideas.

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One of the things my editor said early on in the process was to make things “aspirational but attainable.” I really tried to keep that in mind while I was developing both the recipes and the projects. Sometimes I read a recipe and think, “There’s no way I’m ever making that!” In Scandinavian Gatherings, there aren’t any cake mixes or pre-packaged ingredients, no short cuts, but everything is very doable, very approachable. Nothing seems too overwhelming or too scary to tackle, and the majority of the ingredients and materials should be available locally. I really wanted this to be a book for everyone.

Lisa: I am fascinated by the process of making books — the ideation, the writing, the editing, the art direction, the illustration — and what that’s like for authors. What was the process of making the book like for you? What parts did you love and what were the most frustrating? How long did it take from start to finish?

Melissa: The whole process was wonderful! And stressful too, but I enjoyed it and would do it again in a heartbeat. The whole thing came together very organically for me. After my grandpa gave me the idea to write a book about my heritage, I started writing down every idea that came to mind. I wrote them all down on index cards, and I wasn’t particularly picky about what I wrote down; everything made the cut! I kept them all together with a rubber band in my desk, and every time I’d get a new idea, I’d pull out a new card, jot it down, and add it to the pile. Eventually, I decided I needed to do something with the cards that would actually get me nearer to turning them into a book. So I started putting them in separate piles. I didn’t have any themes planned out or anything, I just put ideas that seemed to go together in the same pile. And after a while, the whole concept of holidays and celebrations and get-togethers just kind of manifested itself.

Making the book was a really, really long process from start to finish. I think it was at the end of 2010, when we were visiting my parents for Christmas, that my grandpa first talked to me about writing a book. As I said, it took me a couple of years to really figure out what I wanted to do, then a few more years to get a book proposal and sample chapter written, and then almost two years to the day from finding an agent to publication day.

Once I had a publisher, the turn-around time was actually crazy fast as far as books go. I think I had six months from the day I signed my contract to the day the first draft of my manuscript was due! I had opted out of doing the styling and photography for the book (thank goodness!), but had agreed to do the process photography (showing how to do specific steps) and make all the crafts for the photo shoots. And both of those were huge tasks! I would make a prototype of a project, text a photo to my editor, Hannah Elnan, and the art director, Anna Goldstein, in Seattle, and they would give me feedback.

Sometimes I got the go-ahead to ship the project up to the photographer, but most of the time I had to do at least one round of revisions. More often than not, it took many rounds. The hand-painted tray from the cover, for example, had the potential to be really cute, but just wasn’t coming together. After several underwhelming attempts, I had the idea to ask the illustrator, Andrea Smith, to design an image. My idea was to cut her design out of paper and decoupage it onto the tray. And it turned out really cute…until I tried to seal it, and then it was an utter disaster. So the night before I absolutely had to overnight it to the photo shoot, I bought a brand new tray, spray painted it light blue in my garage, and hand-painted the design onto the tray after my kids went to bed. I sealed it with acrylic spray the next morning, let it dry as long as I possibly could, said a little prayer that the fresh acrylic fumes wouldn’t melt the paint off the tray while in transit, and sent it off. And it turned out perfect! Now it’s in my studio looking pretty on my shelf.

I’ve been asked a few times about how I decided what recipes and projects to put in the book. Once I had settled on the gatherings layout, I looked at each chapter title and asked myself, “If I were hosting this get-together, what would I serve, and what little bits of decor would I make to go along with the theme?” For most of the chapters, I already had more than enough ideas to make a really full, lovely menu and a few cute projects. There were a few chapters with gaps, where I thought, “If I were serving this food, something would be missing. What else would I need?” In those cases, I looked for family recipes that would fit the theme nicely, and if I couldn’t find anything, I did a little research and asked friends with Scandinavian heritage for help. In a few instances, I just couldn’t find a recipe that felt right, so I created something new that fit the bill while still honoring the seasonality of ingredients, the flavors, etc.

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Lisa: Which section of the book is the most near and dear to you?

Melissa: Oh gosh, that’s a hard one! That’s like asking who my favorite child is! All of the sections were so much fun to put together. I really love the photography in the Heritage Dinner. I think the styling is just beautiful. And all of the recipes are classics. But the Nordic Brunch has so many long-time family favorites. If I had to choose solely based on recipes, I’d probably pick that one. And the crafts from the brunch chapter are super cute. I have to give myself a pat on the back for those. I actually created the Woodland Tea Party for the sample chapter that I submitted with my book proposal, so those projects and recipes have a special place in my heart because they’ve been around the longest. A lot of the projects from the photos in that chapter–the little toadstool garden picks, the felt garland, the tree trunk cake plate–are the ones I made 3 years ago to take pictures of for my book proposal!

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Lisa: What is your favorite recipe? Your favorite craft?

Melissa: Just off the top of my head, my favorite craft is the Danish townhouses from the Nordic Brunch chapter (see photo above). They’re intended to be used as place card holders, but you could use them to hold photos on your desk, menus, holiday cards, small art prints, etc. I was inspired by a picture of some Danish townhouses in the harbor in Copenhagen that my friend, Audrey from This Little Street, posted on Instagram a few years ago. The colors were so beautiful, and all the little roofs in a row were so cute together. The project idea just popped into my head, and I feel like it’s a really unique project that turned out just as darling as I pictured it. I’m sure you can attest to the fact that that’s not always the case with projects!

My favorite recipe is harder. A lot of the recipes in the book are from my family, so when I read them or make them, they remind me of people I love. The Maple Pecan Rings in the brunch chapter are a favorite of everyone in my family. They’re my mom’s specialty. She only makes them for special occasions and special visitors, so if she makes them for you, you have to feel pretty important. And they’re really, really delicious and quite stunning.

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Lisa: The book has a really gorgeous combination of styled photos and bright, graphic illustrations. I especially love the illustrations! How did you find the illustrator Andrea Smith and what was it about her work that made you select her?

Melissa: I feel like Andrea’s illustrations really bring the book to life! I’m so lucky to have happened upon her work. I was struggling early on with the aesthetic for the book. I couldn’t picture it in my head, but I could imagine how I wanted it to feel, if that makes any sense. I wanted it to be white, but not stark or ascetic. I wanted color, but not too much color. I wanted it to look fresh but not too modern, timeless but not old or dated. I was on Pinterest one day and typed in “Scandinavian folk art” just to try to get a little inspiration, and an illustration Andrea had done for someone popped up. Which is crazy because the illustration wasn’t particularly Scandinavian, Andrea’s not Scandinavian, and the client wasn’t Scandinavian. But seeing that illustration was like a zing straight to my heart. THAT was how I wanted the book to feel. It was kismet.

I think what really spoke to me was the folk art quality of her work, but done in a fresh, modern, way. Her designs somehow look new and heritage at the same time. And the colors she uses are just gorgeous. They’re such a great combination of brights and pastels. I knew I wanted a lot of white in the book with pops of color, and her illustrations are exactly that

Lisa: Best thing about being Scandinavian?

Melissa: As adult, I would say it’s a connection to that culture that is world-renowned for being friendly and happy and pleasant. But as a kid, we always loved that we had Viking blood!

Lisa: Thank you Melissa! It’s been great chatting with you! I’m going to make some of your crafts and recipes in the next month for the holidays!

And friends, you can get Melissa’s book here, at your local bookstore, or wherever books are sold.

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New Class Series & Class Launches Today!

11/17/16

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Friends! I am so excited to let you know that I am launching a new series of business and creativity video classes straight from my website. The Lisa Congdon Sessions launches today with my first video course — Idea Generation: Expanding Your Creative Repertoire & Finding Your Voice. Here’s the best news of all: the course is only $29 and you have access to all three class videos and a course PDF for an unlimited time.

What are The Lisa Congdon Sessions?
The Lisa Congdon Sessions is a new series of online video classes I am developing and rolling out over the course of 2016-2017. The first class in the series, available now, is called Idea Generation: Expanding Your Creative Repertoire & Finding Your Voice. I am developing additional classes on other topics, which will be coming in early 2017! (Read more FAQ here).

What is the Idea Generation course all about?
This course is designed for aspiring, beginning or established artists who are looking for tools to further develop personal sources of inspiration and their own distinct perspective in their work. It’s for people who would like to draw influence from the world differently in order to advance their own creative style.

Through this video course, I’ll will guide you through practices for generating new ideas, using inspiration, and developing a body of work around subject matter that is meaningful to you—all with the goal of creating work that is interesting, specific to you and stands out in a world filled with prolific artists.

Watch the trailer!

The course includes three parts:

Part One: In the first class video, I cover brainstorming as a way to generate new ideas about what to paint, draw or make. You’ll focus on exploring the stuff you are already passionate about in your regular, everyday life as a basis for generating ideas for subject matter in your work. You can use brainstorming to begin to find your own distinct perspective and set your work apart. I’ll also discuss the role of research to expand your ideas even further.

Part Two: In the second video of the class, I talk about getting inspired by other artists, both tips and cautions. Nearly every artist has influences, and studying and even mimicking the work of other artists is a normal and natural part of becoming an artist. However, it’s really important to take that inspiration and make it your own, in a very concerted and distinct way, before you claim it as your own or attempt to sell it. I will discuss how to put boundaries around inspiration in order to move away from your influences and toward your own voice.

Part Three: In the third and final class video, I focus on developing and following through with a personal creative challenge or set of challenges. The direct route to developing your own distinct voice as an artist is showing up and making/drawing/painting something at regular intervals—for a few days a week at least, even if it’s just a few minutes a day. Creative challenges are the best way to engage in this kind of disciplined practice. I have done many creative challenges in the past seven years, and I credit them with not only helping me to hone my own styles of drawing and painting, but also to generate interest in my work, including paying client work and gallery shows. I will talk you through practical tips for designing and embarking on your own creative challenges.

Still want more info? Check out our course information page!

Ready to purchase now? Go!

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A Year Between Friends: 3191 Miles Apart

11/15/16

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Some of you may know this, and others of you may not: I have a very talented sister and her name is Stephanie. Some of you may know her as 1/2 of the dynamic & gifted duo, Maria Alexandra Vettese and Stephanie Congdon Barnes, of 3191 Miles Apart. For those of you who don’t know the work of Stephanie and Maria, let me tell you a little bit about it (and stay tuned, because after I tell you about it, I’m going to share with you about their latest book).

Maria and Stephanie met in 2005 back when blogs were a rather new phenomenon. They quickly developed a friendship based on a shared love of many things, including, in their own words, “film photography, art and craft, everyday beauty and a well-lived domestic life.” Just two years later in 2007, they decided to embark on a year long photo project together on a shared blog called 3191 — which was the number of miles between their homes in Portland, Oregon and Portland, Maine. The first project was called A Year of Mornings, which culminated in a book that was published the following year in 2008 by Princeton Architectural Press. As part of the project, they each took one photo a day and merged them as diptychs without discussing content ahead of time — they did this everyday for a year! They quickly acquired a worldwide following of devoted fans inspired “by the magical coincidences and pictorial synchronicity of their photographic pairings.” (via Princeton Architectural Press).

Their friendship grew, and they have continued collaborating on endless ideas and projects for almost ten years now, including publishing A Year of Evenings (now sold out & out of print), a quarterly journal, among many other projects.

Just last week, their latest book (pictured above) A Year Between Friends was published by Abrams. Through letters exchanged over the course of a year and heartfelt sharing of real life events, the book includes the story of a year inside their friendship — including moments of serenity, sadness, and overwhelming joy. Nestled between their letters, the book is also abundant with Stephanie and Maria’s aforementioned shared passions for gorgeous film photography, art, craft, food, everyday beauty and a well-lived domestic life — including recipes and projects for living a sustainable, economical, and handmade life.

Just this past weekend, I went over to my sister’s house (she is one of the reasons I moved to Portland!) and we made one of the projects from the book: waxed cloth wraps! My mind was blown by these wraps. They are so easy to make. Totally reusable and sealable, you can use them to wrap sandwiches and other items instead of foil or plastic wrap.

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The specific directions for making them are included in the book, of course. First, we cut our fabric to size (the book has specific suggestions for different usable sizes). We used some linen pieces and also some of my FABLE fabric from my Cloud9 Kindred collection!

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Then you melt some beeswax and apply it to the fabric. The book offers specific techniques for applying and smoothing the beeswax onto the fabric.

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Let dry and voila! You have reusable waxed wraps!

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Want to take advantage of this project and others in the book? You can purchase A Year Between Friends on Amazon or wherever books are sold.

Congratulations to my sister Stephanie and to Maria for this gorgeous new book!

CATEGORIES: For Sale | Inspiration
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