The Reconstructionists

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We're thrilled today to share an interview with Lisa Congdon about her project The Reconstructionists. To say we're big fans would be an understatement. Her work is consistently gorgeous, and this project is no exception.  Every Monday, The Reconstructionists showcases a woman who made history or helped shape our world (Maria Popova does the writing, and Lisa does the illustrations). The illustrations, along with the short piece of writing, bring the featured woman's work, life, and passions to light, and leave us considering how we might impact our world. You can find more of Lisa's work here, and read about her life, inspiration, and side projects on her blog.

Hi Lisa! Can you tell us a bit about how and why this project came to be? 

I’ve had this idea for a couple of years that I wanted to do some kind of project or book that celebrated women who I admire or who have been influential in my life. Maria and I had met about a year ago, and I began reading her blog. I came to quickly learn that she and I were drawn to similar female artists, designers, scientists, writers and thinkers. Last year, as if by kismet, Maria asked me to hand letter some of Anais Nin’s quotes to feature on Brain Pickings. That initial project brought us together for the first time as collaborators. I love Maria’s writing style and her commitment to generating interesting, thought-provoking content. So this past summer I approached her about collaborating on this larger project together.

So far, you've profiled a wide range of women. How do you and Maria choose your subjects? 

Maria and I have been compiling a list since August. We add the names of women who have or given us hope or whose contributions have left us in awe. That makes it subjective. We don’t intend for this to be inclusive of all noteworthy women or even the “Top 52.” That would be virtually impossible to choose! The women we are featuring are women who are special to us, who have influenced our touched us. So in that way it’s a very personal project for Maria and me. We won’t even be able to include all the women we’d like to include, but we will get to celebrate many of them this year through the project. And maybe expose people to women they might not have known about otherwise.

People are notoriously hard to capture on paper. Is there a point in your illustrative process when you feel like you've "gotten" your subject? Is it in the eyes? The posture? Something else? 

Yes, and let me tell you, the more alive (or recently alive) and well known the person is (at least by their face), the harder it is to capture them perfectly! I really struggled with both Maya Angelou and Gloria Steinem for that reason. It is in the eyes and the mouth---and I always ask my partner: "who is this?" And if it's someone she should know and doesn't recognize, I worry! Sometimes I am not even sure I got it right, but at some point you just have to say "good enough" and be done.

Have there been any memorable responses to this project? 

The day we launched, Chelsea Clinton tweeted about it! So that was cool.

The Reconstructionists comes about at a time when feminism and womanhood are hot topics. How do you think your project fits in to the larger discussion of women's rights and place within society?

I don't know that we are necessarily attempting in any intentional way to be part of that larger discussion. Except that all of the people we are featuring are women, which I suppose is a statement in and of itself. As Maria wrote in her introduction to the project on Brain Pickings, we want to celebrate women we admire without pigeonholing the project into a stereotypical feminist corner and/or only engaging people who are already interested in women's history or women's issues or politics. It is true that we may be contributing to the conversation through highlighting the contributions of the women we feature. Most of the women we feature have contributed enormously to art or culture or science despite hardship of some kind. In some cases that hardship was sexism, and other cases it was poverty or homophobia or racism or disability, or a combination.

How do you think these passion projects affect your creativity in your other pursuits? 

I could not work as an illustrator (wherein I mostly illustrate other people's ideas, stories, etc) without personal projects. I do at least one personal project every year and have for several years. Don't get me wrong. I love what I do as an illustrator and pattern designer. I love my clients and the fact that I can draw and paint for other people for a living. But I get all my creative energy from personal work and pursuing personal passions through my art. That is what gets me out of bed in the morning. The Recontructionists is something I really look forward to working on every week.

What's next? 

There is a lot of interest in the world about making The Reconstructionist into a book. We want to make sure if we do that we are thoughtful about how we do it and with whom we partner. We know that if a print version is meant to be, just the right partnership will come our way. For  now we are just enjoying the online experience and response.