Everyday Icon: The Creative Couple

Artist Lisa Congdon and her wife Clay Walsh sit down with Clementine Daily to talk about building their business and marriage together.

Photo credit: Brian Emerick

If you’re anything like us, you probably often find yourself captivated by different works of art. From wispy watercolors to hand-drawn illustrations, we can’t seem to get enough.

This may explain our appreciation for the work of fine artist and illustrator Lisa Congdon. We’ve been fans for quite some time and we had a chance to chat with both Lisa and her wife Clay—who recently signed on to become Lisa’s Head of Marketing and Operations—about working together as a married couple to grow Lisa’s brand.

Just looking at both of their Instagram feeds (Clay + Lisa), it’s clear that they place a lot of value on hard work and down-time—which is something we can appreciate! Read on for an in-depth look at the processes they’ve gone through as they decided to become business partners, how they keep things harmonious in both work life and married life and so much more!

Lisa, we’ve been following your career as an artist and illustrator for years and we’ve always admired the fact that you chose this path a little later in life than most. What first made you fall in love with creating art? Did you have an initial “aha” moment, or was it more gradual?

Lisa: Thank you for your kind words! I had been working in the nonprofit world as a project manager for a few years, and before that I was an elementary school teacher. When I was about 31, I took my first, official art class. It was a semester-long intro to painting. Once I started painting, I was hooked. At first, like anyone who does something for the first time, I was very much a “beginner.” My paintings were really not very good at all, and my work looked nothing like it does today. But making art calmed and centered me like nothing I had ever experienced, so I kept doing it. I set up a little table in my apartment to make collages and paint, but I had no idea whatsoever that it would eventually become my career. My relationship with art in the early days was very “pure.” That is to say, I wasn’t doing it because I thought people were paying attention; I did it because I loved it. Eventually, years later, when I started posting my work online, people did start paying attention. When I got the additional satisfaction that comes with sharing what you create with the world, I got even more hooked than before.

And now the Lisa Congdon brand, so to speak, has become wildly successful—so much so that you two are not only a happily married couple, but now you’re also business partners! Clay, deciding to leave your full-time job to take over the operations and marketing side of Lisa’s business must have been a huge opportunity to consider. What was your thought process like during that time? Lisa, what about you?

Clay: This was definitely not an easy decision! Lisa and I first started talking about this idea about a year and a half ago, around January 2014. It came up in a typical New Years conversation, when we were talking about setting goals for the year. Lisa’s career was really taking off, and I wanted to help, but I had a full time job as the Director of Marketing at California College of the Arts (CCA). When I came home from work, it was hard for me to do much else but make dinner, walk the dog, and be emotionally supportive to Lisa. But there was just so much room to bring someone else into the business. We were curious what steps we might have to take in order to work together, and realized it included leaving my job and the Bay Area in order to find a more affordable and sustainable city in which to live and work. In the end, we chose Portland, Oregon, and it was a really hard decision to leave my job. While my job was fairly stressful, and I was battling a long commute, I really did love the creative atmosphere and my team at CCA. I also loved the steady paycheck, 401K, and health insurance! But at some point, I realized that working with Lisa would allow us to grow her business in ways she couldn’t do on her own, and I had all the skills she needed in a business partner: project management, marketing and operations experience. I had to pull off the band-aid and give notice at CCA. Fortunately for me, everyone—my co-workers, employees, and even my boss—were incredibly supportive. They even threw me a huge party. I couldn’t have dreamt up a better “quitting” scenario.

Lisa: I didn’t want to force Clay to leave her job to work with me unless she decided it was what she really wanted. So I tried to be really patient as she thought long and hard about what she wanted for her life and career. I had to trust that if it was the right thing, it would happen. If it wasn’t, some other solution for growing my business would evolve instead. In the end, I am so glad she joined me. Of course, it meant other big life changes, like moving to a new, more affordable city from the Bay Area of California. And big changes and moves are hard and emotionally draining. But we are taking it one day at a time. And I love working with Clay.

We tend to wrap our careers into our identities in a lot of ways and we’re curious: Clay, when you decided to join Lisa and become business partners, did you ever worry about losing some of the autonomy and identity you had in your career up to that point? How did you work through it?

Clay: That’s a really good question! I did worry—I still do! I am someone that needs a very separate and distinct identity than the person that I am with. We are both very close but very independent. I love being Lisa’s business partner and she has been amazing about incorporating me into every decision and wants me to take ownership and leadership in the business. However, it became clear pretty quickly that I wanted some autonomy and my own projects. So I am currently looking to expand my marketing and operations services to other small businesses in 2016. It’s an exciting prospect, not just for me, but for building our creative careers together in this industry.

We know you two have been very intentional about each step, as you’ve moved into this new working arrangement. What sort of considerations have you had to be aware of—both when you started this process of working together and now that you’ve been in it for the last several months?

Lisa: Several years ago, over the course of two years, I worked with business coach Tiffany Han (who ironically was just starting out as a coach at the time too). It was a match made in heaven. I was already establishing myself as a successful artist and entrepreneur, but needed help navigating my new-found stress around increasingly growing workload. I was a total wreck at the time and Tiffany was enormously helpful to me in figuring out how to begin to manage all the new aspects of my business without losing my mind. Over the course of working together, I started to figure some stuff out, and through the process, Tiffany and I got to be really close. At some point we decided to end our coaching relationship and just be friends. She remains one of my closest friends and confidants.

When Clay and I decided to work together, we hired Tiffany to come over to spend the day with us for a one-day retreat where we hashed out our collective goals, developed working norms for communicating (both as wives and as business partners), talked about what we each needed and how we could make sure we both got what we needed. It was an amazing day. Tiffany guided and facilitated the whole thing, but we came up with all the agreements. Several months later, we still refer to all of the ground rules we set that day, and to our goals. It was very helpful. That said, we continually need to talk about what’s working and what’s not working in our business relationship, and in the business in general. I don’t think you ever arrive at perfection. You just keep talking, working through problems and trying new solutions. We have to stay very open minded, very kind to each other and very communicative. That’s how we are making it work well.

Here at Clementine Daily, we try to focus on the sweeter things in life—things that make our everyday a bit more enjoyable. While both working and living side-by-side, what are a few key ingredients that help you two keep daily work life and married life running somewhat smoothly?

Clay: We stop for lunch every single day and eat in the kitchen and not at our desks! This has proven to be very important to us. We also do our best not to interrupt each other, and, in general, we are trying to be very conscientious about each other’s time. Also, we roll up our sleeves and do administrative work and manual labor together. For example, we both pack and ship Etsy orders every Thursday. In fact, we choose a different Spotify radio station each Thursday morning as we print, pack and ship to keep us entertained!

Lisa: This is a real gift in our lives, but we can now afford to build out a very sweet office/studio to work in every day. It will be right next to our new house, in what was the garage. Construction won’t be finished until September, but we are creating a workspace complete with desks and computer areas, a conference table, a packing and shipping area, lots of natural light, everything will be very clean and modern. I think this will help us to continue to feel “professional” and have a place to go to work every day together that is not the dining room table. Also important is stopping at the end of each day and on the weekends to play. As much as we both work hard, we also like to play and enjoy our down time. We are religious about taking down time, traveling, eating out and clearing our work off the dining table for dinner parties. That helps both our marriage and our business relationship.

Do you two have any mantras or sayings that keep you grounded?

Clay: Yes! We do. The three we repeat almost every day (that we actually came up with in our meeting with Tiffany) are: “We chose this,” “It’s just art!” and “Take it easy.” We try hard not to take ourselves or the business too seriously.

You both inspire us so much! Who are a few of your everyday icons—people you admire and look to for inspiration?

Clay: I very much am in awe of and admire Ellen Degeneres, Ari Shapiro, Jason Collins, Brené Brown, Michelle Obama, Jonathan Fields, and my nana, Grace.

Lisa: I really admire people who live with an enormous amount of kind-heartedness, authenticity and integrity—that is, people who are just themselves, regardless of what might be different about them and people who always speak their truth, even if they fear losing friends or fans. There are too many to name here, and many of them are just regular people. Those are the people who I try to emulate in my life.

p.s. Want snag a copy of Lisa’s latest book? It’s available for purchase this week! To learn more about Lisa’s creative journey, you can also listen to her recent interview on the Creating Your Own Path podcast!