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by Elaine K Howley

June 1, 2016

Illustrator and author Lisa Congdon celebrates swimming

Lisa Congdon, 48, of Portland, Ore., loves to swim. She also loves to create art, and has released a joyful exploration of both muses with her book, “The Joy of Swimming: A Celebration of Our Love for Getting in the Water,” published by Chronicle Books in April 2016.

The Magic of Swimming

Congdon’s early childhood was spent in New York, and at age 7 or 8, her family relocated to California, where she soon became a swimmer. “That’s around the time that if you’re going to start swimming on an age-group team, that’s when you start,” she says. “We moved into this neighborhood and I was intrigued by the swim club because we didn’t have one where I came from in New York.” Her family went to check out the club during a swim team practice, and Congdon was ready to jump right in. She soon began making some of her fondest memories at that very same pool. “The smell of chlorine, the feeling of rough poolside concrete under my bare feet, and the sound of water splashing are all so nostalgic for me that even now I am often transported back to the magic of my childhood simply by closing my eyes,” she writes.

Although she says she “didn’t have the discipline” for swimming while she attended St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga (the school didn’t have a swim team anyway), Congdon swam for fitness frequently. After graduation, she moved to San Francisco and resumed her fitness swimming routine. A friend finally suggested Congdon start swimming with a Masters program, and though she says she felt intimidated by her perception of the other swimmers’ skills, she decided to try it anyway. “I went to practice and everyone was nice and welcoming. A lot of people on the team were a lot slower and a lot were faster. But it wasn’t about competition. I realized it didn’t feel like a high-pressure situation. That’s the great thing about Masters—if you want it to be more about fun and camaraderie, it can be that,” she says.

With a little coaching, Congdon rediscovered a love of competition from her youth and “started swimming way faster than in high school,” a very satisfying continuation of her swimming experience.

A Love for Art Discovered

Though she’s always been a swimmer, Condgon hasn’t always been an artist. “I’m totally self-taught and didn’t start painting or drawing until I was 31 years old,” she says. She had no aspirations of becoming a working artist, she says; it just sort of happened. Congdon had been an elementary school teacher, and in 2001 while working for an education nonprofit, she began looking for something enjoyable to do outside of work. So she started taking some art classes. “The more I did and the more classes I took, the more into it I got.”

Timing, talent, and an intuitive sense of how to reach a large audience also helped propel her down the path to professional artist. She started posting pictures of her work to a blog in 2004. “There was the Internet then, but it’s not the Internet we know now,” she says. “Nobody read my blog, but then I joined Flickr and posted pictures,” and that’s when she started receiving inquiries from people looking to buy her art or to show her work in galleries. “I still had a full-time job, but started selling work online and having a few, very small gallery shows,” she recalls. She also started an Etsy shop, “and slowly over the course of the next four years, I eventually had a full-fledged, full-time career as an artist and illustrator,” she says. Congdon eventually became an author, too, and to date has released six books.

Writing “The Joy of Swimming”

The success of Congdon’s previous books—“Whatever You Are, Be a Good One” and “Fortune Favors the Brave,” a book of hand-lettered, inspirational quotes, both published by Chronicle Books—led the publisher to ask to partner with her again, and this was her opportunity to

“make another book that I was really passionate about. I thought about what it would be for a long time,” she says. She wanted to write about something that had impacted her life in a positive way, and “swimming became the obvious thing.”

Her writing process for “The Joy of Swimming” started with a brainstorm after she got the book deal. “I sat down and thought, ‘‘If I write about swimming, what would I want to include,” she says. “I thought about all the categories of things that I was curious about and what I thought others would be interested in,” and developed a working list of topics to research. She began mocking up sketches and infographics to include.

In addition, “The Joy of Swimming” also introduces readers to more than 30 swimmers, aged 9 to 92, from all walks of life, in text and with a watercolor portrait. Initially, Congdon wanted the profiles to be of elite swimmers. “I had in my mind that I was going to profile really famous swimmers, the typical list of swimmers,” she says rattling off familiar names such as Michael Phelps and Jenny Thompson. “I started the process of contacting these people but kept hitting dead ends.” Frustrated, she went back to the drawing board.

“I realized I wasn’t going to have enough famous swimmers, so I scrapped the idea and tried to find enough regular people for whom swimming has had a really positive impact. And that was a really amazing decision,” she says. She posted a call-out on her blog seeking stories from “anyone—young, old, black, white, able-bodied, disabled. I was looking for anyone who has an amazing swimming story, and the response was phenomenal.” A few of the swimmers she profiles are more famous, such as Johnny Weismuller and Karlyn Pipes (see the July-August 2015 issue of SWIMMER for a feature profile on Pipes’s amazing swimming journey), but most of the swimmers are just ordinary people who love to swim. “They’re not Olympic champions. They’re regular people. People who’ve been disabled or had health problems for whom swimming had essentially saved their lives. I began interviewing these people not realizing this was going to happen. I just started writing them up and illustrating their portraits,” and a little bit of magic appeared on the page.

Congdon knew she had 144 pages to work with for the book. “As I’m building the book, I’m thinking, ‘Now I’m up to 100 pages, I’ve got 44 more pages to fill. What else can I write about?’” The book also includes bits of swimming nostalgia and historical ephemera, interspersed with the profiles, infographics, and hand-lettered quote pages. “A lot of the photos were old photos I’d collected. I also have a collection of old swimming things,” she says.

The book had many variable components that needed to work together, so after each piece was drawn or photographed, Congdon scanned it into her computer and manipulated it in Photoshop and a layout program. “It all starts out by hand,” she says,

“but it all ends up in the computer,” which is a great thing, she says. “If you make a mistake you can erase it and start over. It blows my mind to think about what people did before technology.” (The same is true for magazine production!)

Congdon is known for her whimsical and stylized hand-lettering. A “literally painstaking” process, hand-lettering takes its toll on her right hand, Congdon says. But it’s become a very identifiable part of her art practice, so she continues, even if some of it ends up on the cutting room floor. Originally, all the profiles in the book were hand-lettered, but “it made the book too hard to read,” she says, so the lettering was tossed in favor of typed text. 

Once she had the draft together, it was forwarded to her editor, who suggested changes and a back-and-forth collaborative editing and rewriting process ensued. Finally, the text was finished and sent to China for printing, which takes about six months. All told, the process to see “The Joy of Swimming” become a final product took about a year and a half.

Although readers typically will pick up a book and read from front to back, with Congdon’s books, readers can dip in and out as they choose, just like in a pool. She says she has “no preference for how readers interact with it,” but she fully intended from the outset that readers “could open it in any place. I wanted the book to not feel heavy. It’s almost the analogy of water. So many people said this—‘When we’re in the water, we feel light and we feel held.’ To me, the book needed to reflect that. I wanted it to feel light and open and for readers to be able to engage at any place with it.”

This approach has been successful—audience response to her newest book has been “amazing,” Congon says. “I didn’t realize how many people loved swimming. I knew enough people would buy the book, but I didn’t know how many people would like the book. And it’s not just competitive swimmers—almost everyone has some kind of positive experience with swimming, or being at a pool, or spending time in the water in the summer. It calls up a lot of nostalgic, happy memories for a lot of people. And that was the emotion that I wanted to evoke.”

Now that Congdon has explored swimming, what’s next for the intrepid illustrator? “It doesn’t have a title right now, but I’m working on a book of essays by, interviews with, and profiles of women over age 40 about the positive aspects of getting older. The book focuses on women who are late bloomers, or women who did amazing things when they were older.” Rumor has it Dara Torres will be featured in the book, along with other athletes, artists, activists, and writers. “It’s an inspiring book about getting older for women.” Seems a perfect project for a Masters swimmer who keeps getting faster in the water and more accomplished on land. 


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