June 18, 2014
After more than two decades living in San Francisco, artist + illustrator Lisa Congdon found a new home in Oakland. It was quite a change, but on her first morning waking up in the little bungalow she shares with her wife, she says, “All I could hear were birds chirping, and the sunshine was streaming in through the blinds on what was a gorgeous February day. I decided right then to treat my Oakland move like an adventure.”
I moved to Oakland in February of 2013. For 23 years I’d lived 12 miles away in San Francisco, where I’d been since the day I graduated from college in 1990. I loved San Francisco. It was part of my DNA. It was where I became a real adult, where I came out as a lesbian, where I fell in love for the first time (and many times after), where I learned to cope with life’s disappointments and heartaches, where I learned to cook and eat well and appreciate wine, where I became an artist and bohemian. It was inextricably linked to my identity as a human. So the thought of moving to Oakland felt, at first, like losing a limb.
But, in truth, San Francisco was changing (and still is), and by 2013 it didn’t feel as much like my city anymore. For the past 10 years wealth has been changing the city, and I was directly affected. The owner of my beautiful studio space – where I painted and drew everyday as my living for many years – decided to raise the rent beyond what I (and most artists there) could afford. That event was the catalyst; I needed a new studio and San Francisco was now out of my financial reach.
If we were going to leave San Francisco, my wife and I wanted all the things we couldn’t have there –more quiet, more trees & more space, to name a few. So we found a little house in a sweet neighborhood near Piedmont Avenue (and I found a fantastic large & super affordable studio space across town) and we packed up our things, and left San Francisco for Oakland.
I often say I might as well have moved to Austin or Pittsburgh (two places I’ve never been). Oakland, while close to San Francisco, wasn’t a place I’d spent much time. People said the weather was warmer by at least 10 degrees on average. I’d heard the art scene here was vibrant and growing. I knew there were stunning hills for climbing on my road bike and big swimming pools under redwood tree groves. All of these things appealed to me enormously, but I was still nervous.
I remember the first morning I woke up in our bungalow. All I could hear were birds chirping, and the sunshine was streaming in through the blinds on what was a gorgeous February day. I decided right then to treat my Oakland move like an adventure. I am a voracious traveler and I love exploring new places. So I set about at least once a week to discover new neighborhoods, new parks, new shops, new restaurants & new galleries. What I discovered was a really beautiful city, rich in ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, gay people, delicious food, art, tattoos, fashion, design, music and hiking, swimming and cycling spots. I felt at home immediately, and I fell in love with Oakland.
I love the space most in Oakland – the space on the roads and sidewalks, the space for hiking and biking, the space between buildings and houses. Energetically, things are not as tightly wound here. And, as a result, neither are most of the people here. I have so many favorite places here – more than I can possibly name. But one of my favorite places is Mountain View Cemetery, which is just two blocks from my home. Designed in the late 1800’s by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted—the architect of New York City’s Central Park, Capitol Grounds in Washington DC, and Yosemite —Mountain View Cemetery is a beautiful, sprawling park that just happens to be filled with tombstones and mausoleums. People treat the cemetery like a park – they ride their bikes there, walk their dogs there, climb to the top to watch the sunset and see the sprawling vistas. It is one of the most serene and peaceful places I’ve ever been.
People ask me a lot if my work has changed since I moved to Oakland – and it undoubtedly has. I started making abstract paintings after I moved here, and have just had my first solo show of abstract work in an Oakland gallery. Maybe it was just coincidence, or maybe not. I have always thought that when I started making art as a younger woman, living in the chaos of the Mission District in San Francisco made a distinct imprint on my work and the directions that it took. I suppose in the same way Oakland is shaping my work now. I look forward to seeing where I venture next.