Wed May 7, 2014
Arts & Culture

Meanwhile with Wendy MacNaughton

Despite the media headlines, San Francisco isn’t just the backdrop for some tech zombie apocalypse. Beneath the Google Bus frenzy, San Francisco has another story to tell. Actually, many stories. SF native and graphic journalist Wendy MacNaughton set out to uncover these hidden stories in her new book Meanwhile. It’s a collection of drawn portraits of San Francisco residents and their favorite hangouts, including written observations from interviews. With ink, water color, and her signature scribbled handwriting, MacNaughton brings these people and places to life. She amplifies the voices of everyone from the regulars at the SF Public Library to the brave members of the Dolphin Club.

Meanwhile, reporter Kristina Loring wandered around with MacNaughton for a day in search of new stories to draw. They journeyed to Pier 70, a port on the southeast side of the city and once an economic engine of San Francisco. The Gold Rush wouldn’t have been possible without it. Its the longest running shipyard  in the country, but most of its buildings are now empty and falling apart. 

That doesn’t stop MacNaughton from exploring the shipyard. She has a knack for finding beauty in the things we usually pass by like graffiti under the freeway or telephone posts. “It’s kinda like a lot of the posts around here, you can see the layers of fliers, almost like man made tree rings or something,” Wendy MacNaughton says as we get closer to the heart of Pier 70.

She first came here because of a commission from real-estate firm Forest City. They’re working on a big development project in the area, but first they wanted to understand the culture of the neighborhood. So they hired Wendy to capture and preserve the stories of workers and artists there. They needed somebody on the ground. Her process is at the human level. She talks to strangers. She listens carefully. Then, she turns her discoveries into vibrant pen and ink illustrations.

MacNaughton says, “Each place has its own challenge as far as gaining access to what’s going on. Sometimes there’s so many people you don’t know where to start. sometimes there’s no people so you don’t know where to start."

But the abandoned buildings and structures also have stories to tell—like the gigantic cranes that look like metal dinosaurs guarding the shipyard. MacNaughton squeals when she finds an oddity among the brick and cement. MacNaughton’s spotted a tall grassy plant sprouted in front of a boarded up entrance to a building. She imagines that it’s guarding the building. This type of contrast between the old and new, the natural and built environment is MacNaughton’s type of drawing inspiration.

However, It's one thing to sketch a building. It's another to approach a live human being and ask if you can draw them.  But MacNaughton’s former life as a social worker and her genuine interest seem to give her an all access pass.  When MacNaughton runs into Nate Williams, a warehouse supervisor, its like old friends reuniting. MacNaughton met Nate a few years ago, when she made a portrait of him for the forest city project. She calls him the “house philosopher.”  He’s been working here for 37 years. He sees everything that passes through the Pier, from cheap shoes to ambitious developers.

MacNaughton's hyper conscious of her role as a documentation. She’s careful not to just swoop in, capture and leave. She keeps in touch with a lot of the people she draws and assures Nate that she’ll be back around Pier 70 again.

When we leave the pier and head back to MacNaughton’s studio in Potrero Hill, she adds bright watercolor to her squiggly sketches and the illustrations come alive. They’re a playful concoction: one part whimsical, one part authoritative, another part surreal. Half-finished sketches cover every surface. Some of them are people like Nate and others are objects. “You can learn a lot from detritus,” MacNaughton says with a laugh. “Not to say I am going through people’s trash but if you are on the street and you see a symphony stub next to a cigarette pack wrapper, next to someone’s crumpled up homework with a 'C' on it, it shows something about three different people’s lives but they coexisted in a different area, tells a little story about that location.”

That’s when I realize San Francisco is MacNaughton’s muse. She describes the city as “manageably infinite”: small enough to give the illusion that she can walk every street and meet every person. As a fifth generation San Franciscan, the city is also home. But the process of drawing it can still bring surprises.

“I thought that this was my city, I had my way of looking at SF and I thought I understood what SF was, but the process taught me how many San Franciscos there are and mine was just one of them,” says MacNaughton. “Once we are exposed to something new and exciting and we’re touched by somebody’s story, and it makes us wonder about other people’s stories, and that curiosity becomes internally contagious and we want to go and share our stories with other people we learned and go and explore more.”

MacNaughton’s outlook is contagious. When I leave her studio, I feel like I’m seeing everything as a potential sketch: a dog walker turns into a chatty watercolor, discarded speakers on the sidewalk look like doodles with a joke to tell. I suddenly want to talk to strangers and discover all the stories hidden just under the surface.

“When we talk about San Francisco or any place or a small town, there’s usually some main narratives,” says MacNaughton “Meanwhile there are so many other ways of being and so many other stories that are going on that don’t get a lot of attention that are just as important as all of the other stories.”

And through telling them, Wendy invites us to break out of our routines to find beauty in the people and things around us.

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