Art and Social Practice

Art and Social Practice

In “Meanwhile in San Francisco,” Wendy MacNaughton draws the lives of others.


[From the spring 2014 issue.]

The tricky thing about interviewing illustrator/author Wendy MacNaughton is her natural curiosity can lead the interviewer into talking about herself, digressing into such oddities as to whether a wallet and keys talk to each other in a purse. I was not surprised to find out she was trained as a social worker.

She is the illustrator of the charming
Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation and GPS Technology by Caroline Paul (Bloomsbury, 2013), and has illustrated the forthcoming Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them by Isaac Fitzgerald (Bloomsbury, fall 2014).

Her book
Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in Its Own Words (Chronicle Books, 2014) documents insular pockets: the mah jongg players in Chinatown, the regulars at the main branch of the public library, the swimmers at the Dolphin Club, and the single-room occupancy folks of 6th Street. The conversations she records form a crucial oral history about the city she loves. MacNaughton’s handwriting looks casual, with squiggles on the top of the O’s, slightly herky-jerky lettering, and uneven lines of text. She places the text by loose watercolors on a white background, often using underlining or arrows for movement. Whether documenting people she meets or the objects that represent them, she treats all with respect.

On April 2, 2014, the mayor of San Francisco proclaimed a “Wendy MacNaughton Day.” Knowing her playful sense of humor, she probably would have preferred April 1. —Alex Behr

Alex Behr: When you were working on the book did you have certain areas of San Francisco you wanted to focus on?

Wendy MacNaughton: Just areas and communities that I didn’t know very well and was curious about. My family goes five generations back in San Francisco. I was born here but raised in Marin, but I spent a lot of time here. I consider San Francisco my city. I thought that I knew it. But when I moved back here, when I moved in with my partner, I started hearing about all these sides of the city I didn’t know about. I thought I knew it all. That wasn’t true at all.

Behr: I’ve got friends in Portland who are involved in the art and social practice movement primarily through the master’s program at Portland State. Was that something you became aware of as you were working on the project? Your book reminds me of a project that would fit into that movement.


MacNaughton: The art and social practice thing is very interesting to me. When I went to art school it was absolutely not mentioned. It was something people looked at as part of the ’60s or ’70s and thought about as a time past. When I went to art school it was all about conceptual art and critical theory. I made some of the worst performance art videos you’ve ever seen in your life. It was just terrible!

I ended up doing my graduate work in social work, and so I naturally link the art and the social work practice organically. They’re both big parts of who I am. I created a practice, if you will, that draws on both of those backgrounds, as well as my background in advertising and copywriting. I use a lot of text. Even though the words in those books are not mine, of course I’ve reedited, so I think there’s a huge connection to art and social practice. It wasn’t deliberate, though. It wasn’t in my vocabulary at the time when I started it. And through the process of doing the work I became in conversation with people who are focused on that now. There’s a really great program at CCA (California College of Arts) and at my alma mater, the Art Center College of Design.

Behr: My friend Lexa Walsh got a master’s degree in art and social practice here and was the artist in residence at the Portland Art Museum. She led a lot of fun and subversive/absurd tours through the museum, such as singing to the work by women artists (many of whose art is hung in a narrow side annex). She asked a security guard to lead a tour, which was great, and had a professional cheerleader do cheers for the art.

MacNaughton: That’s really funny. And a guy named Rirkrit Tiravanija was doing a lot of great stuff in the ’90s, cooking and building communal spaces, creating situations like social engagement... That was interesting to me at the time, but it wasn’t of interest really, at least among my peers. It wasn’t discussed as social intervention per se. I think a lot of social impact art can be heavy-handed, and can be so obvious, and quite boring. What you said your friend is doing (and others) is such an interesting way to come at it from like a side angle. And get people engaged without it getting shoved in their face.

Behr: Or being lectured...

MacNaughton: I hope that this book is more like you get whatever you want to get from it. Some people I’m sure will look through it and see pictures and think it’s a behind-the-scenes travel guide of San Francisco. And that’s fine. But if somebody wants to think about the discussion of how can art and storytelling have a social impact, then that’s an important way to come at it also.


Behr: You have a real humane approach to how you draw people, and that probably comes from working on your skills as an artist as well as being able to use white space to your advantage. Every person is important to you, yet together they create a chorus effect.

Oh, that’s such a nice way to put it, thanks. That feels very true to me. On subway or BART you could spend an hour looking at every single person and learn so much just by looking at their face and imagine where they’re coming from, where they’re going to, or what they’re thinking about in the twenty-minute ride when they’re sitting there silently. I love that everyone holds such incredible stories, each one of us, and you can look at a mass of people and be excited about what that group means, or you can look at each individual. I do love looking at people. I really like the lines on people’s faces. Drawing is an excuse for me to stare at someone for a long time. I’ve gotten good at drawing people in such a way that they don’t notice it, at least for a little while.

For this project, which is ongoing, I spend a long time with the people that I’m working with, all their stories, because I’m not interested in telling my version of their story. The goal is to do the best job I possibly can of being a vehicle to people to tell their story—people who are not usually in the spotlight. All of the voices in the text are directly from the mouths of the people I spoke with.

Working this way is also a way for me to connect with people I otherwise wouldn’t connect with. Because when I stand on the street with drawing pad and pens, people stop and ask me what I’m doing. They ask to see pictures, and then they want to tell me a story about whatever it is I’m drawing. And they want to tell me their experience, and immediately there’s a relationship that’s established there. I love that. I love that it’s a way for me to meet people that otherwise I would never meet.

Behr: Do you go back and show them the drawings?

MacNaughton: Sometimes. It depends. If I’m doing sketching then oftentimes yes. The way I work is I draw with a pen on paper and sometimes I’ll take photos for color reference. Then I’ll go back to my studio and I’ll paint the painting there. Sometimes a drawing looks like chicken scratch, and sometimes that can be disconcerting to people. I say, trust me, it’ll get better—I hope.


Behr: How did you meet Isaac [Fitzgerald, former editor of The Rumpus]?

MacNaughton: The “Meanwhile” project first started when I left my full-time advertising job. Stephen Elliott [the founder of The Rumpus] was a friend, so I knew what they were doing there. The Rumpus was just starting, so I was doing these simple panel pieces, like where it was just compact, and Paul Madonna was the editor of the comics at the time. Paul really pushed me to do something more narrative, and so that’s what ended up leading to the first “Meanwhile” piece in The Rumpus. It would take me about a month to do one, and one 24-hour period of scanning all of the images and all of the text and arranging everything into this long composition. Every time at around 4 or 5 in the morning I would inevitably have a technical problem. I would call Isaac and wake him up, and he would help me with the posting.

Behr: Oh, man.

MacNaughton: He’s the best. Isaac is just my hero. None of this would exist without The Rumpus. Completely big thanks to The Rumpus. So that’s how Isaac and I became buds, through 4 AM phone calls.

Behr: I wanted to mention StoryCorps and Studs Terkel...

MacNaughton: Wow, you just mentioned two very important things to me, two very important people. What makes you think of them?

Behr: When I first saw your pieces on The Rumpus I felt like you had a singular style; it had this warmth to it. I had read Studs’ books Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and The Good War: An Oral History of World War II, and I thought of him when I was reading Meanwhile. I felt you have an interest in production—like the people working at the farmers’ market, you will represent them through what they have grown. Their produce is their life, in a way. I also thought about his leftist politics, which come out in your work, especially contrasting the economic divide between 6th and 5th streets in the South of Market area. That part of the book resonated with me.

MacNaughton: That’s a high compliment, thank you. He is a huge influence. All of us who are interested in storytelling and people’s perspective of storytelling can learn a lot from Studs. And StoryCorps, too, is such a fantastic project. When I was in social work school I wanted to quit and work for StoryCorps. I just loved what they were doing. Taking a show on the road and collecting people’s stories for posterity. It’s just so cool!

Behr: Are there parts of your work that are a little bit boring to work on but also meditative?


MacNaughton: Painting, absolutely. There are four different steps, and they are four different parts of me, or different ways of engaging with the world or with myself. One, being out in the world, where I’m extroverted, it is meditative in that in order to draw from life you have to be very focused. It totally sucks me in, but someone can come in and interrupt me, and there’s the part of social engagement. There’s an element of mania about it—it’s so much about being on, and there’s almost a performance element because of the way I’m out, interacting with the public.

Then the second part is at the studio and doing the paintings, and sometimes it can take five minutes and sometimes it can take five hours. And that’s me alone in the studio with music, oftentimes NPR, music, and podcasts, and it’s very quiet and introverted.

The third part would be the scanning and the creation of the story itself, where we’re talking about these stories. That is a very different part of the brain: using the text and images together to create a narrative.

And then there’s the fourth part: putting things into the world. I share online pretty much everything I’ve ever drawn. If you go to my blog you can go back to 2005, and you can see every drawing that I have done since I started drawing again. Showing the work is a big part of making the work.

I like to work on something, finish it, and get it off my desk. And then go on to the next thing. By sharing, it’s a way of me finalizing it and learning lessons from it and going through those thoughts and then moving on to the next project.

Behr: San Francisco is always changing. It’s a city, it’s a place, but is it worse now than it used to be? I lived there during the boom. Does it seem really different down there? Now that you’ve been to all these different communities, is the city more homogenized, and more focused on the wealthy?

MacNaughton: I think that if you, Alex, came back to SF right now you would recognize a lot of what’s going on as being very similar to what you experienced when you were here before. If you and I were here the decade before, we would’ve recognized similar things as well. Like the city is constantly going through growth spurts and major changes.


Behr: Well, the Western Addition, a lot of it was razed in the ’60s.

MacNaughton: Yeah, exactly, and the Fillmore. And all the areas around SOMA, when all of Yerba Buena was created. Since the institution of the city, it’s been going through major times of struggle where people have been displaced and focus has shifted. And my thing is, I’m not saying it’s okay, and it’s not a tragedy, but it’s the history of San Francisco. What I’m interested in right now is the importance of different voices in the city that aren’t being heard in today’s narrative of the city, or any city. In order to have a productive conversation we have to talk a little bit more about the gray areas and have more appreciation of other points of view that aren’t as polarized.

Also, so many people are moving here now, and San Francisco’s a boomtown, right? People come here to fulfill their dreams. It’s not like moving to a place that’s about the establishment. It’s different, quirkier. And I just hope that I and everybody else in San Francisco can appreciate the diversity and the difference that makes it what it is. And that we realize the impact that all of us have on the city when we’re making our decisions and that we make choices that maintain and support that diversity and support the different ways of living.

My partner bought the house we live in 20 years ago. Were it not for that, we might not be able to afford to live here today, and I wouldn’t have been able to make this book. That irony isn’t lost on me. I hope others recognize it, too.

Wendy MacNaughton is the illustrator of Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation and GPS Technology by Caroline Paul (Bloomsbury, 2013), and has illustrated the forthcoming Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them by Isaac Fitzgerald (Bloomsbury, fall 2014).

Alex Behr recently interviewed Lee Ranaldo for the magazine. Behr’s essay about performing in the “Mortified” series ran in our Winter 2010 issue.

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