8 Things
Lisa Congdon, artist and collector

On January 1, the San Francisco–based artist and illustrator Lisa Congdon began documenting her various collections on a new blog, A Collection a Day. A new day, a new grouping: vintage Boy Scout cards, delicate sewing notions, paint tubes, plastic charms, erasers, paintbrushes, pencil leads, even — strangely — multicolored buoys. “No, I don’t have a collection of buoys,” Congdon laughs. Or a collection of Victorian shoes, for that matter. As her website explains, while she photographs the collections that decorate her house and studio, “some are imagined; those I will draw or occasionally paint.” Scroll through her site, and you’ll find twigs and toiletries drawn with ink on paper, and, yes, buoys painted with gouache on Masonite. When she began the project on a whim, the plan was to fill a year’s worth of web space, even if she wasn’t sure she’d have 365 things to document.

Congdon, who co-owns the design boutique Rare Device in San Francisco and creates work on commission for clients like Pottery Barn and Chronicle Books, came late to the art and illustration game. She was 33 the first time she picked up a paintbrush, and she only did so because she was taking an art class through the extended education program at Berkeley with her brother, who was a student there in need of an elective. But collecting hooked her early on: “As a kid, I collected dolls and penguins — really dorky stuff,” Congdon says. “I’ve always had a love for old things. When I was little, I would go to my grandmother or aunt’s house and ask permission to touch the things on their shelves. I think I had a fantasy of being an archeologist, discovering the story behind old stuff.” It’s a habit she picked up from her mother, who at 71 is still a practicing artist. “Among other things, my mother collects nativity scenes, so at Christmas the whole living room gets completely overtaken,” she says.

Because the vast majority of Congdon’s collections are paper ephemera, originally intended for use in her work, she doesn’t tend to be particularly sentimental about them. “Part of being a collector is just the challenge and the weird pleasure you get from finding something,” she says. Eight of her favorite conquests are presented here.

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“I have a thing for school supplies, but what I love most about old erasers is the typography. It’s actually what I love most about a lot of the things that I collect. I also love the shades of pink and how some are really worn and some are pristine. Erasers this old aren’t really usable anymore anyway, so I feel like I’m rescuing something that would otherwise be thrown away. I have been collecting erasers for years and have a place in San Francisco where I find them fairly easily, but I don’t want to reveal my source. This was the first collection I posted for my project back in January.”

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Missals are old liturgical books with instructions for mass. I'm not a religious person, I didn’t grow up Catholic, and I didn’t even know what a missal was back then, but I think they're beautiful. I got my first one from a book vendor at a flea market in San Francisco — he’s not there anymore — who had this big truck where every book was a dollar. It didn’t matter how collectible or how cheap and ratty it was. Missals are quite small (2x4 to 2x5 inches) so you can carry them in your pocket. The paper is really thin, many are written in German, and the text is in some gorgeous Fraktur font. Some have illustrations inside too. In fact, might be interesting to open the next four up and show the insides, which are just as beautiful as the outsides.”

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"My tiny photo collection started several years ago. I had been collecting vintage class photos, and I loved looking at the expressions on people’s faces. I think I was at a flea market looking through one of those large bins and found several of these tiny portraits, which is rare: You have to really dig to find these, and especially to find them not marked up and super expensive. I love the sepia tones and how they look when they're all lined up. Right now I have several hundred. I plan to fill a gallery wall with all of them someday as part of an art installation."

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“This is just a small part of my scissor collection. Before I was a painter, I made quilts and pillows out of vintage fabric and I fell in love with sewing supplies, mostly vintage ones. Scissors became part of that collection and then grew into its own. We make a rotating collection of mobiles to hang from our ceiling at Rare Device, and I once made one from my scissors. To me it was a beautiful object, but it was super controversial. People either loved it or were completely frightened by it and thought it was creepy.”

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“I collect kitchenware in general; one of my first collections was enamel dishware. Most of my stuff is mid-century Scandinavian, and a lot of it is from the '70s. I actually have many more plastic spoons in orange and yellow, and some blue and green (those are harder to find). Unlike a lot of my kitchen collectibles, we actually use all of these spoons when we cook.”

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Some of Congdon’s collections are ephemeral, literally. Her stockpiles of eucalyptus leaves and pinecones, subject to rot, must be carefully preserved. That’s partly why she’s attracted to these beach rocks, which she picked up mostly on San Francisco’s Pacific shores. “I’ve been an avid collector of nature my whole life, but most of the time I’ll collect something, photograph it, and put it back. I’ve had this particular collection of flat beach rocks for years, though. I look for the most smooth, most round rocks, and if they have a white line going down the center, that’s a special perk,” she says.

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“I collect vintage postcards not for the fronts, but for what’s written on the back — not the content, but the handwriting. I love old script so much, and how beautifully weathered the postcards are. The stamps are also amazing. I also have lots of envelopes like these that are handwritten. At some point I’ll probably flip them and photograph them again. People don’t write like that anymore.”

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"My name is actually Elisabeth, but I've gone by Lisa since I was a kid, hence the E collection (I like E better than L). I got my first plastic E — the large black one, I think — a few years back and have been collecting them ever since. They are spread throughout my house, both on the walls and on shelves. I love typography in general so the E collection is a way for me to feed that particular obsession."