anna brones

writer + artist + producer

Lisa Congdon

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“An artist is someone who practices and expresses their creativity intentionally and regularly.”

-Lisa Congdon

Even if you don’t know her name, it’s hard not to have come across the work of Lisa Congdon. Her illustrations have been featured in numerous books and magazines, her wisdom about working as an artist is inspiration for many seeking a creative path, and her bright, bold, thoughtful work has become a visual statement against the oppressive and divisive politics of our time, a balm for many of us.

I have followed Lisa’s work for years, and knew that I wanted to feature her in the Women’s Wisdom Project. But would she say yes to taking the time to do a Q&A?

If there is one thing that I respect about Lisa, it’s that she is very publicly open about how she manages her time, and the necessity of saying no. She recently launched a collaboration with Emily McDowell and she has a new retail space in Portland. All to say, Lisa has a lot on her plate, and I was so grateful when she responded to my email and agreed to answer a few questions.

Originally, I had thought about using either of these quotes in her papercut portrait:

“Want to get better at something? Keep doing it.”

“Every single person who chooses to embark on a creative path has to work at it… You have to stay open and constantly move outside what’s comfortable.”

All of those words have power, particularly for those of us in a creative field, whether it’s personally or professionally. But eventually I landed on something that she wrote in her answers in this Q&A. That an artist is “someone who practices and expresses their creativity intentionally and regularly.”

Why this quote in particular?

The topic of what we call ourselves often comes up in conversation with friends and colleagues. When you are in a creative field, there is sometimes a fear or pushback to feeling like you get to define yourself with a certain term. Simran Sethi talked about this in our interview, not feeling like she could comfortably call herself a writer. I too have felt this many times, hesitating at the terms “artist” or “writer,” wondering if I have permission to employ them.

Instead of defining who we are and what we do on our own terms, we often seek external validation. In our culture, usually that’s money. The Virginia Woolf quote comes to mind: “Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.”

But you are not an artist because someone pays you to make art. You are an artist simply because you are involved in the act of creating. That’s why Lisa’s quote stuck with me, a reminder to reinvest in the creative act, to continue to be intentional about creative work.

Anna: What does wisdom mean to you?
Lisa: Wisdom to me is perspective. Perspective on life, the flow of life, the ups and downs of life, the relative seriousness of life’s events, understanding that all things pass, even good and exciting things, especially the difficult things. It’s an ease, a loosening of the grip. The perspective that comes with wisdom grows naturally with age, and it’s very comforting.

Is there an influential woman in your life who passed along a piece of wisdom to you? Who and what?

I haven’t seen her in years, but I had a therapist in my early/mid thirties who literally helped me change my life. Previous to working with her, I thought of myself as a victim, as someone who had no agency over her life or happiness. I was really, really depressed and suffered from extreme anxiety. And she helped me shift my perspective to see that I had the power to create the life I wanted through what I believed about myself and about life. Low and behold, I worked on changing my beliefs about life and my own worthiness, and my happiness grew. She taught me that it was my attitude about life’s events — not life’s events themselves — that would determine the quality of my life, and that I should look at even difficult experiences as opportunities to learn more about myself and to grow. Everything shifted for me as a result. I ceased being a victim and began being creative. I began making art. Everything opened up as a result.

What does the word “artist” mean to you?

Someone who practices and expresses their creativity intentionally and regularly.

I think a lot about our cultural use of the words “productive” and “prolific.” Especially in creative fields, these are certainly viewed as positive things, often given as a compliment. And yet, I think that it distracts us from the importance of the process of creative work, because we are instead so focused on the outcome. You are a full-time artist, so how do you find that balance between producing artwork to keep yourself financially flourishing and investing in a process that fuels you?

I am one of those people who others describe as “productive” and “prolific.” People ask, “When do you sleep?” assuming that people who are prolific also do not enact self care or know how to recharge. I think one of the beautiful things about my path so far is that I have pushed the envelope so many times (working too much!) and have managed now to learn the sweet spot where the creative experience and productivity meet but don’t overwhelm me. I’ve made the mistake of taking on too much work or committing myself to too many projects in the past, and I’ve learned when I do that I basically just stressed out and I feel like crap physically and emotionally. So what’s the point? A new client on the client list? Something new to show in the portfolio? Those outcomes mean little if you are miserable in the process of achieving them. My work right now is finding just the right amount of work to pay the bills and feel creatively challenged, but also to do as much of my own personal work as possible (and I’m lucky because I can monetize my personal work), and find time to explore, try new things, and also to rest, ride my bike and enjoy my life. That work is hard because you have to be so self aware. You have to say no when something doesn’t serve that end, even when it’s a beautiful carrot. You have to be super present. It’s daily work. I’m into it, though. I want to feel happy and relaxed. Getting older makes me want to really live what I have left.

Do you experience creative blocks? If so, how do you deal with them?

I do sometimes, but not too often, because I am always actively seeking out inspiration and I also have en enormous amount of grit that helps me work through blocks. In my experience, creative blocks are either exhaustion or fear. So I try to suss out which it is in any particular situation. And then I either rest of push myself through the fear of failure or whatever I’m scared of.

What wisdom would you share with your younger self?

YOU ARE A SMART, CREATIVE BEING. YOU WORTHY OF LOVE AND HAPPINESS.

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

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Written by Anna Brones

March 22, 2019 at 08:07

Greta Thunberg

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“You are never too small to make a difference.”

-Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg is 16, and last August when it was time to go back to school in her city of Stockholm, she decided to strike instead. It had been a record hot summer, and she wanted to do something about climate change. So she sat outside of Swedish Parliament, with her now famous sign “skolstrejk för klimatet” (school strike for the climate). She handed out fliers that said “you grownups don’t give a shit about my future.” After three weeks, Thunberg went back to school, but she kept striking every Friday, and others joined her.

I was in Stockholm in November, and walking on a cold Friday afternoon I saw the strike. I remember feeling inspired, but also sad, thinking of the situation that these young people currently face, and of the future yet to come. I was in my own head focused on other things, and I didn’t stop to talk to them. Now of course I wish I had.

Today, March 15, 2019 students have taken to the streets around the world for the global climate strike (also known as Youth Climate Strike, Fridays For Future). What started as one girl’s insistence that something needed, and could be, done has turned into a massive movement. Thunberg was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this week. If you haven’t watched her UN Climate Change COP24 or TEDxStockholm speech please do. And if you haven’t been following the global youth movement that is growing day by day, do that as well. It feels like a flicker of hope in dark times.

“This movement had to happen, we didn’t have a choice. We knew there was a climate crisis. Not just because forests in Sweden or in the US had been on fire; because of alternating floods and drought in Germany and Australia; because of the collapse of alpine faces due to melting permafrost and other climate changes. We knew, because everything we read and watched screamed out to us that something was very wrong,” she and other young leaders wrote in a global op-ed.

Support them, raise their voices, join in. Remember that none of us are too small to make a difference.

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

Simran Sethi

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“Empower women and we all do better.”

-Simran Sethi

Journalist, writer, podcaster, speaker, professor: Simran Sethi is many things.

Her work centers around food, sustainability and social change, and whether she’s penning an article about bees for the Smithsonian, podcasting about chocolate, or speaking at a conference, whatever medium she uses, she is committed to connecting with people.

In 2015 she published an excellent book titled Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love. That book is ever more topical given the recent United Nations report on the shrinking biodiversity and the risk for global food and agriculture. For example: while 6,000 plant species are cultivated for food, just nine of them account for two-thirds of all crop production. If we don’t prioritize biodiversity and conservation, we are in risk of a serious crisis.

Sethi and I have only met in person once, but thanks to this thing we call the Internet, we have been able to cultivate a friendship. I have a deep respect for the work that she does, and over the course of knowing her, I have discovered many of the commonalities that we share. We had a long conversation last summer, and I only recently got around to transcribing it.

It was so refreshing to listen to it after all this time, the things that we talked about are still relevant and I found myself appreciating this new dose of wisdom from her.

Who is Simran Sethi?

I’m a writer and I’m a professor of journalism and have been a podcast and broadcast journalist and documentary filmmaker. I’ve had a number of different designations, but all of them at their very core are about creating something. For me the act of creation is one very specific intention of helping people make better decisions in their lives, providing the kind of information that will support some small or large level of transformation.

You told me that a woman who you shared an apartment with when you were teaching in Rome last summer referred to you as an artist, and that you really appreciated that. Why do you think you haven’t referred to yourself as an artist?

I’m still pretty new to referring to myself as a writer. It has taken me a long time to do that. I mean, even after a major house published my book, I would apologetically and sheepishly say, “I wrote a book.” Probably it comes from very early on in my childhood. My family and I immigrated from Germany, but my parents are of Indian origin. As far back as I can remember, my father gave me five job choices: teacher, lawyer, engineer, doctor, or scholar. My mom encouraged actual artistic creativity in my sister, but I was the bookish one, with glasses at age six, reading a lot. I didn’t see myself as, A: someone who a was creative, or B: was allowed to be creative.

It’s so interesting to me that so many people say “I’m not creative,” even though it’s not a thing that we inherently have or don’t have. It’s something that we can work on. Everyone gets to be creative, no matter whether you’re an engineer or an illustrator. I wonder what it is that’s kept us from embracing that culturally.

I think it even ties in to the notion of a storyteller. Certain people claim that mantle, but we all are telling stories every day. Like I write in my book, we’re made of story. I firmly believe that: we’re engaged in creative acts every day. Whether it’s a spreadsheet, a book or a loaf of bread. We can look to the age of rationalism and philosophers like Descartes, and I can’t really go too far down that road, but I think there’s something there separating out an artist from a thinker, as if these things are mutually exclusive. They are not, they are embedded in each other.

When you think of the word wisdom, what does it mean to you?

The first idea that comes to mind is roots going deep. And the distinction I would make between being smart and being wise. Wisdom feels like a grounded knowledge, being centered and steadier in yourself. To describe someone as wise, to me is to describe someone who is not only knowledgeable about the world, but has a deep relationship with their inner world.

Is there an influential woman in your life who passed along a piece, or sense, of wisdom that you can remember?

It sounds a bit cliche, but the person who has done this the most, is my mother, with little dust bunnies of wisdom. So much of how I felt about recent decisions that I have made have been elevated by her support. I live a pretty nomadic existence, and there’s a part of that absence of a singular home that feels weird and ungrounded. My mom reminds me how remarkable these decisions are, how lucky I am, how her life would have been so different if she had been allowed to make different kinds of decisions. Her feedback and insights have been really reaffirming for me.

How do you stay grounded within that existence?

I’ll share with you what I share with my mother, to reassure her: I have to find “home” within myself. I used to be a labor support doula, helping women during childbirth. When you’re actually birthing, you’re not moving, you’re birthing, right? You’re walking around ahead of time, you’re rocking or on your hands and knees or doing whatever you do. But in the moment when you’re pushing that life into the world, you’re stationary.

It’s a little bit difficult to drop down into my creative work when I am moving; I have to find still points. And I also know the movement feeds the work. In many cases, it is the work: taking in the world and bringing it back to my respective audiences – whether in print or on a podcast.

I feel like that constantly, that I need solitude and stillness to create the work, but I need movement to inspire the work. That is a tough balance to find.

Exactly. It’s dynamic. So many things feed us. It’s a gift. And, at the same time, I occasionally – rarely now but still – feel like, “Wouldn’t it be nice to live a calmer, contained life?” To pick the kids up from soccer, to make dinner with the husband, et cetera.

I have been thinking a lot about what women have to contribute. And I was thinking about all of your work in chocolate, meeting women on the ground. What are some of maybe the old traditions are wisdoms that they have that can help to move us forward in a sustainable way?

Women have a much harder time getting access to capital and land. Yet, they’re the ones who, with whatever money they earn, do a much better job at sustaining the household. It’s just so simple, right? Empower women and we all do better, our entire society will be better. If you give women access to education, credit, work, leadership positions, things will be better.

There’s this one collective of women farmers I met in Dominican Republic who make chocolate. I referenced then in a story I wrote for Yes! magazine. All they wanted was be treated the way the men were and to earn enough money to have some agency in decisions in around their families. Some of them are farmers, but they’ve now also moved into making this value added product, chocolate. The way I saw them take care of each other at the conference where we met, and what I learned about how their role in their communities were being elevated as they were seen as business people. It was quite inspiring.

From a global perspective, women feed us. We grow the crops, we make decisions around food purchases and make the food. We nourish. But these acts have also been taken from us. Women were the first people who made beer – they were called “ale wives” – women were the first to make farmhouse cheese, and so on. It’s only when these kinds of drinks and foods become commodities – when it’s taken away from the province of the home – that they seem to accrue value.

I want to continue to be somebody who calls attention to that and does whatever I can to help shift perceptions around who – and what – women are. I don’t fully know how that will play out but it starts, I think, with what you’re doing: elevating women’s voices.

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

Written by Anna Brones

March 8, 2019 at 06:43

Swedish Semlor

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Semlor, the treat you need for a Fat Tuesday fika.

Semloryeasted buns filled with almond paste and topped with whipped cream, also called fastlagsbullar or fettisbullar—are a Swedish treat for Fat Tuesday.

The tradition dates back centuries, and the first documentation of this style of pastry dates back to 1250, when it was featured in a painting. In the early days, semla did not include whipped cream or almond paste, but was simply a bun served in a bowl of hot milk, called hetvägg. On the evening of Fat Tuesday in 1771, King Adolf Frederick enjoyed a banquet of lobster and Champagne, and rounded things off with 14 hetvägg. Things didn’t end well—he died that night of indigestion.

Obviously we can all consume a more lagom amount of the culinary indulgence, and they are perfect to pair with a cup of coffee or a mug of tea, so get a batch of these going today and enjoy the lovely cardamom smell that will fill the kitchen. Johanna Kindvall and I featured this recipe in our book Fika: the Art of the Swedish Coffee Break (signed copies here!) and I figured I would share it here today so that you could partake in this wonderful custom.

Semlor
recipe from Fika: The Art of The Swedish Coffee Break

makes: about 12 to 16 buns

buns
7 tablespoons (3.5 ounces, 100 grams) unsalted butter
1 cup (240 milliliters) milk
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 eggs
1/4 cup (1.75 ounces, 50 grams) sugar
3 1/2 cups (1 1/8 pounds, 495 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 to 3 teaspoons whole cardamom seeds, crushed

filling
2 cups (10 ounces, 285 grams) blanched almonds
1/4 cup (1.75 ounces, 50 grams) sugar
1 teaspoon pure almond extract
1/2 to 1 cup (120 to 240 milliliters) milk

to finish
½ to 1 cup (120 to 240 milliliters) heavy whipped cream
powdered sugar

In a saucepan, melt the butter, then stir in the milk. Heat until warm to the touch (about 110ºF/43°C). In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in 2 to 3 tablespoons of the warm liquid. Stir and let sit for a few minutes until bubbles form on top.

In a large bowl, whisk together 1 of the eggs with the sugar. Pour in the remaining butter and milk mixture, along with the yeast. Stir until well blended.

Mix in the flour, baking powder, salt and cardamom. Work the dough until well combined. Transfer dough to a lightly floured flat surface, and knead until dough is smooth and elastic, about 3 to 5 minutes. The dough should feel a little wet but if it sticks to your fingers and the countertop, add a little flour. Place dough in a bowl, cover with a clean tea towel and let rise at room temperature for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Grease a baking sheet or line with a silicone baking mat. On a flat surface, divide dough into 12 to 16 equal pieces and roll into balls. Place them with 2 inches (5 cm) between each bun. Cover with a tea towel and let rise for 30 to 45 minutes. (To test when they are ready to bake, poke your finger gently into one of the buns; the indent should slowly spring back, about 3 seconds).

Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).

When you are ready to bake, beat the last egg with a fork and brush the top of each bun. Bake 10 to 15 minutes until the tops are golden brown. Remove the buns from the oven and transfer to the counter. Cover with a tea towel and let cool completely.

To make the almond paste, in a food processor grind the almonds until finely ground. Add in the sugar and almond extract and pulse until mixture sticks together. (You can also buy almond paste if you can find it at a specialty store.)

Cut a circular “lid” off the top of each bun and set aside. Cut a circle along the inside of each bun, leaving about 1/4 inch (0.5 cm) for a border, being careful not to cut all the way to the bottom. Scoop out the cut portion and place in a bowl along with the almond paste. Mix together together and add enough milk to make a filling that’s thick and smooth filling.

Fill each bun with the filling then top with whipped cream. Gently place the “lid” on top and dust with powdered sugar.

Brew some coffee and serve immediately.

Note: Semlor doesn’t store well, so if you are not planning to eat them all in one go, I suggest you only prepare as many as you need. Freeze the rest of the buns as soon they are cool.

Written by Anna Brones

March 5, 2019 at 08:17

Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman

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“I don’t shine if you don’t shine.”
– Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman 

I am a big fan of the work of both Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman. I wanted to feature both of them as part of Women’s Wisdom Project and it felt fitting to put them together, since they are a masterful duo.

Listening to them on their podcast Call Your Girlfriend feels like hanging out with friends; friends who inspire you to be better. Their show makes me want to read more, ask more questions, create more art, have more fun. I also love their Shine Theory concept which this quote comes from. (And yes, they have a shared quote because I think we all need a reminder of how much wisdom we all share with each other on a regular basis.)

A little extended excerpt from Shine Theory:

“Shine Theory is an investment, over the long term, in helping someone be their best self—and relying on their help in return. It is a conscious decision to bring your full self to your friendships, and to not let insecurity or envy ravage them. Shine Theory is a commitment to asking, “Would we be better as collaborators than as competitors?” The answer is almost always yes.”

YES. We don’t create in a vacuum and we don’t succeed in a vacuum. We have to build up a team of people who believe in us, support us, and inspire us.

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

Written by Anna Brones

March 1, 2019 at 09:22

Kamala Harris

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“My mother had a saying: ‘you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.'”

-Kamala Harris

I have returned to this quote so many times since making this papercut of Kamala Harris. That’s for two reasons.

First, I love asking fellow women about an important piece of wisdom they have learned in their lives. Most often, it’s something passed along to them by someone close: a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, a sister, a close friend. So when I saw that Harris had shared this sentiment from her own mother, it really resonated.

We have a tendency to gravitate to the words of writers, artists and thinkers that we don’t know. There’s something about a knowledgeable person sharing a tidbit of information that feels meaningful, valuable. There is also power in the ability to condense complex emotions and concepts into words. It’s why books can resonate so much, why a good speech can bring us to tears.

But as it turns out, some of our most cherished wisdom comes from our closest connections. No matter who we are, we have so much to offer each other.

The second reason that I feel moved by this quote is what’s in Harris and her mother’s words. They remind us that our actions help to set a stage for the future.

I actually made this papercut before Harris announced her presidential campaign, but I believe that her running, as well as other female candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, does help to set that stage. Whatever we do, when we take action, we have to ensure that those actions are contributing to building a platform that supports others.

After all, we are only as powerful as the groundwork that we build for future change.

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

Written by Anna Brones

February 22, 2019 at 07:36

Charlotte Brontë

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“Cheerfulness, it would appear, is a matter which depends fully as much on the state of things within, as on the state of things without and around us.”

-Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855)

This quote is from Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley, her second novel published after Jane Eyre, originally published under Brontë’s male pseudonym, Currer Bell.

Brontë, as well as her sisters, are often seen as feminist icons, revolutionaries who questioned the social norms of their time. “…in 1847, Brontë was a gateway to the future (as the fact that we are reading her today so neatly proves). She lived in a sophisticated and complicated world, one whose codes and unwritten rules, whose morality and intellectual structure, would baffle even the most learned among us,” writes Sam Jordison in the Guardian.

Constance Grady, in an article for Vox, puts it this way: “What animates the Brontë sisters’ work is a specifically feminine anger in response to their patriarchal society, a feeling of being hunted and trapped and confined and degraded that is peculiar to women of great intelligence and few opportunities and resources.”

It’s an interesting thing to take quotes out of context, which is basically what we do every time we write down a quote, share a quote, illustrate a quote, say a quote out loud. By identifying just a few sentences, we focus deeply on the meaning of the chosen words, not necessarily the entirety of where they came from. We take the words and give them our own meaning. I think about this every time I work upon a Women’s Wisdom Project piece, conscious of my own role in perpetuating this obsession with simplifying complex ideas, thoughts and identities into just a few sentences.

I think I happened upon this quote of Brontë’s at the library when I had briefly picked up one of those books about positive thinking and cultivating a more balanced life to flip through briefly. The book did not speak to me but the quote did, and I noted it down for later, perhaps because the reminder of the necessity to cultivate inner contentment is always needed.

But of course, I have no knowledge of what the line would have meant to a reader in Brontë’s time, or even what her intention was in writing it. After all, Shirley is a social chronicle, focused on life in industrial England. This was not the day and age of Marie Kondo, mindfulness or minimalism, it was a time of survival.

And yet, I believe that these words of Brontë’s hold true for a variety of contexts. If we define ourselves simply by the situation around us, we might never question that situation, or work to change it. An external situation may fuel our rage, but it is how we deal with that situation that matters.

In that sense, for me the wisdom in Brontë’s words is this: to come to terms with our inner selves is not only our source of cheerfulness, it is our source of power.

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

Written by Anna Brones

February 15, 2019 at 10:02