Dawline-Jane Oni-Eseleh


I met Dawline-Jane Oni-Eseleh back in 2012 when I began teaching business classes for illustrators in San Francisco. But I really got to know Dawline when she was a “live studio audience” student for my taping of my CreativeLive class Become a Working Artist. I remember recognizing immediately that there was something special about Dawline — a determination and resolve and obvious passion and talent that made her stand out. Dawline has always been an artist, but in the last few years, she has taken her art practice to entirely new places. She is incredibly prolific and inventive. Last year, she left her long-time job as the manager of a popular art supply store in San Francisco to become a full time working artist and art teacher. As a friend of Dawline’s and a follower of her work online, I am continuously impressed by her ability to produce interesting work day after day. Last night on Instagram she wrote, “When I don’t make time to draw, paint or carve a block, I get super cranky. I feel it in my neck and jaw.” She shared an image of a piece she made yesterday that, while she wasn’t happy with it entirely, she felt better, because she had pushed through and made something.

Dawline lives and works in Oakland, California. Her current work is focused primarily on what she calls “the shifting urban landscape,” and she has taken a deep dive recently into work about her family. She is an avid observer and prolific photographer, who employs a vast catalog of visual notes and memories as the fodder for her work in drawing, painting and printmaking. She uses a range of media including relief print making, pen and ink, photo transfer and encaustic. What you will find below are not only images from Dawline’s prolific and diverse portfolio of work, but her thoughts on diving deep into subject matter, abandoning her dream to become a Solid Gold Dancer, leaving your day job to pursue a career as an artist, her love of teaching art, and the grit it requires to make a living as an artist, especially when you are first starting out.

Without further ado, I present to you Dawline-Jane Oni-Eseleh in my Interviews with People I Admire series!


Lisa: Tell us about you. Where did you grow up, what role has art played in your life? What was your path to becoming a full time working artist?

Dawline: I grew up in the Mid-Hudson Valley region of New York, about 2 hours north of New York City, the third of four daughters. When I was very young I was strongly influenced by the activities of my two older sisters – they were always writing and illustrating little books, creating plays for us to perform for our parents or playing instruments. I remember being a very sensitive, day dreamy little girl who bored very easily, so those types of activities gave me something to focus on.

My parents had reproductions of art on the walls growing up – one of the ones I remember clearly was “Four Studies of the Head of a Negro” by Rubens, and a book of “The Helga Pictures” by Andrew Wyeth. I looked at that book for hours – I couldn’t have been more than 5, but it was the first hint that art was something that someone could do her whole life, and that one could focus on a single subject for years. During my formative years, I was always involved in some visual or performing art program at school, whether it was glee club, school band, creative writing, or art class. As kid who loved to express herself but wasn’t sure how to do it verbally, it gave me a tremendous opportunity to be social and be “heard”.

Lisa: So did you know you wanted to be an artist?

Dawline: I always figured I’d be an artist in some shape or form. Initially, in elementary school, I had designs on becoming a Solid Gold Dancer with regular appearances on Soul Train, but I later settled on the more practical career of architect because I loved drawing houses so much. By the time I got to high school I decided that I wanted to design album covers, and spent hours practicing the logos and portraits if my favorite metal bands in #2 pencil. Art was a constant in my life, and I saw it all around me, but it wasn’t taken seriously as a practical career choice by adults around me at that time. Nevertheless, I persisted and took as many different art and literature classes as I could, applying to and getting into the art school of my choice at the end of my junior year, much to the chagrin of my dad. That was the beginning of a very long battle between doing what was “practical” to support myself, and developing my artistic practice. The rest is history.

Lisa: One of the things I’ve always been impressed with in you is your discipline. I was going to say you have an “insane” work ethic, but I corrected myself because I don’t want to in advertently pathologize any commitment to living a disciplined creative life (though I often describe my own relationship to my work as insane)! So let me rephrase by saying you have an incredible work ethic. You make and share work nearly everyday. You are incredibly prolific. What drives that in you?

Dawline: Ha! It is a little insane, and I think it is part of that now internalized struggle to prove that, yes: art is fun, art is passion, and art is valid as a life’s work. I try to give a little bit to nurturing my career every day, rain or shine. It’s also practical – since this is my way of processing information and expressing things that are on my mind, a day without making art would almost be like a day without talking to anyone. Those periods when I can’t make artwork for whatever reason feel a little bit like solitary confinement. I’m too much in my head without an outlet. It’s both vice and virtue.

Lisa: Tell us about the themes and major influences in your work. How do you come up with ideas for what to draw and paint and make?

Dawline: For the past few years my work has centered around themes of home in all its various meanings and iterations. I used to have these recurring dreams about houses, and I wanted put this imagery down on paper. I started with literal images of houses, much like the type I used to draw as a child – triangular roofs, square windows, rectangular doors, all very symmetrical. As I repeated these forms it evolved into a meditation on place and the stories behind them. As I did more research into the subject and discovered Carl Jung’s theories on dreams and the idea of the house as self, I started to dig a little deeper into my thoughts, and these images became conversations about different facets of my life. I started to integrate different pictorial symbols into my work – clouds, waves, lightning bolts and even Depression era pictographs to compose images that could be taken at face value or examined more closely. In recent months, I have gone very literal with my “home” imagery, and I am currently working on a body of work that depicts members of my immediate and extended family. It’s a story told without a set chronology.

I’m a big reader and researcher and probably watch more television than is cool to admit. A lot of times, if I come across a reference or concept intrigues me or I don’t understand I jot it down or look it up for further reading. In that way, I’m always trying to expand my knowledge base and explore the different ways we as humans seek to communicate the basic themes of our existence – love, hate, hunger, war, procreation, hope and survival. It’s in everything, from documentaries about World War II to Sharknado 4. I would say that popular culture is one on the biggest influences in my work.

Lisa: One of the questions I get a lot is “How do you come up with your ideas?” I am always curious about this question for other artists. How do you decide what to work on from day to day? What role do ongoing projects and bodies of work have in your art practice?

Dawline: Because I’ve been doing this for most of my life, figuring out what to do every day is second nature. I generally have a ton of ideas floating around my head, and I’m tasked with slowing down and focusing on one thing at a time so that there is a cohesiveness and consistency to my work. I usually take a lot of photos every day as a visual diary, which I then organize into folders by theme on my computer. I use the notes section on my iPhone to jot down stray thoughts and refer to them often for those rare times when the ideas aren’t flowing so freely. Because I work in so many various mediums I rely on bodies of work and projects to rein myself in.

Lisa: Teaching has become a big part of what you do. Tell us about what & who you teach and the meaning it has in your work and life.

Dawline: Currently I teach a wide range of age groups, from kindergarten to senior citizens, in both studio and community settings. I find it helpful to be able to step outside of my approach to creating and see things from a new perspective. My approach to teaching is geared more towards skill sharing and developing critical thinking skills, as opposed to “This is the only acceptable way to get this result.” I find it rewarding because I generally come away learning so much about the variety of expression from one person to the next, even when given the same prompts and materials. I’m currently teaching relief printmaking to all age groups, as well as intro to digital photography for elementary school students and leading interactive art exhibition tours to school age students.

Lisa: for years you worked as a manager at a major art store in the Bay Area, but recently you jumped ship to become full time artist. People ask me all the time, “How do I know when I’m ready to leave my day job?” And I always say: “It depends”. How did you know you were ready?

Dawline: When the time is right to leave, you will see a giant flashing exit sign that you cannot ignore. I say that metaphorically, of course, but it’s also very real.

My advice to someone deciding to leave their day job would be this: Be very honest with yourself about your ability to be self-directed, be objective about your work and ability to handle rejection and be graceful and keep moving forward, and think about what you would be willing to do to support yourself during lean times. Another important thing to consider is how good you would really be at being your own boss, realizing that the boss isn’t always necessarily your friend. Working for yourself means showing up consistently and on time, working long hours and making tough decisions. It can take a really long time for you to see returns in your investment in yourself as a business. Before you leave, examine your reasons for wanting to take the leap.

My reasons for leaving were many, and had a bit to do with company culture, but at the heart of it I was working 42 hours or more a week at my day job in addition to putting 4 hours or more a day into my studio practice. That year I had an art show booked every month and was getting good feedback on my work, including exposure from press and online interviews. I did a self-assessment and concluded I had no problem putting in long hours considering I was relatively autonomous at work, while at the same time good at prioritizing my art career. I focused on what I liked about my job – marketing, connecting with customers and the community, and sharing my knowledge of art materials and techniques. It gave me a sense of the different ways I could support myself as a working artist. Once I had that list down it was easy to start transitioning out of that job and focus on a positive and realistic outcome. My one exception to that advice is if you find yourself working in a toxic environment on the verge of burnout. If you find yourself in that situation, locate a lifeboat and leave asap. Once you head down the road to burnout, you put your future productivity at risk, regardless of where you land.

Lisa: You work in so many mediums from watercolor to photography to block printing. Why is working in so many ways important to you? What does your diverse art practice give to your experience as an artist?

Dawline: The simple fact is I really love exploring different materials. Maybe it’s because I tend to get bored easily, maybe it’s a side effect of working in the art materials industry for close to 20 years and having to explain different things to people with some degree of authority. If you think of art as a form of expression, using different materials is like speaking different languages. I like pushing the bounds of different mediums, but just as in speaking different languages, a beautiful poem in one language may not rhyme if translated literally into another. I enjoy the process of seeing how far I can go in one direction and then switching it up into another. It’s like a form of visual code-switching. As a person growing up in an Afro-Caribbean household in the suburbs in the 80’s and 90’s I think it’s an intrinsic part of my experience of trying to fit into two different worlds on a daily basis, that naturally shows up in my work.

Lisa: I know you would describe yourself as a life-long artist but you also readily admit that you are just in the beginning stages of making a full time living as an artist. It’s tough to keep the momentum required to do this full time, especially when you are in the first few years of your career. There is a lot of hard work, hustling, networking and marketing required, and often this is when people give up. What keeps you motivated to continue with such passion everyday? What are your hopes and dreams for yourself as your career evolves?

Dawline: I got through these first few years with the help and encouragement of my close friends and family – especially during the time leading up to and immediately after I left my full-time job. They had my back when things were very tough, and I don’t think I can ever really thank them enough. It’s tremendously important to have people that support you though the ups and downs, because it’s so easy to give up hope at any given time. The “ups and downs” part is key – because the art market can be such a competitive field there are times that feel tense when you have friends trying for the same opportunities. It seems counter intuitive, but even the little successes can be a source of stress at first – people wondering aloud how you may have gotten opportunities when they feel their work is as good or better, or conversely, spending time and money on developing work and having opportunities fall through and facing questions on when you’ll be getting a “real”  job. It all circles back to having a clear direction on where I wanted to see my career and how I wanted to develop my work. It helps me to keep my eye on the larger picture. As my career evolves I’d like to be a little more self-sustaining – as it stands now, I’m still in “work almost every day” mode as I try to find a sustainable flow.

Lisa: Who are your art heroes? Who do you admire and why?

Dawline: Sometimes I get really weary of heroes, because there is always something a little problematic that creeps up (nervous laugh). But, when I think of two people whose careers in expressing themselves I deeply admire, I think of Prince and David Bowie. They aren’t visual artists in the classic sense, but in terms of exploring different avenues of sound, performance, experimentation, and visual representations of themselves, I really can’t think of anyone I admire more. They presented as two people that were always wholly themselves, and that is something I strive to emulate as an artist. In terms of visual artists, I love Jenny Holzer for her use of text and environment to make points that are bigger than the sum of their parts, Alice Neel’s unflinching portraits, Diebenkorn’s use of color to capture the incredible quality of the light in the Bay Area, and Hokusai for his “pictures of the floating world” and the fact that he changed his name more than 30 times to reflect the different periods in his life and work. I also love Jugendstil design and propaganda posters. They fall on opposite ends of the spectrum with the former being highly decorative and the latter being very strait forward in its messaging, but I love the combination of solid color and stylized portraiture.

Lisa: Where can people find you online?

Dawline: My website is www.dawlinejaneart.com, on Instagram at @disfordilettante, on Twitter at @dawlinejane_art and on Facebook at Dawline-Jane art and Illustration.

Lisa: Thank you for sharing your talent and wisdom!



Abigail Gray Swartz


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.


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!!


New Quilt Pattern!


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

Melissa Bahen: Scandinavian Gatherings



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.


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!”


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


New Class Series & Class Launches Today!



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!