Meanwhile with Wendy MacNaughton

Apr 22, 2015

San Francisco native and graphic journalist Wendy MacNaughton set out to uncover the city's hidden stories in her book, Meanwhile in San Francisco. 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 San Francisco Public Library to the brave members of the Dolphin Club.

I wandered around with MacNaughton for a day in search of new stories to draw. We 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. It's 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 kind of 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 MacNaughton 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.

“Each place has its own challenge as far as gaining access to what’s going on," MacNaughton says. "Sometimes there are so many people you don’t know where to start. Sometimes there are 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 spots 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, it's like old friends reuniting. MacNaughton met Williams 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 is 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 Williams 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 Williams 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. It 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 S.F. and I thought I understood what S.F. was, but the process taught me how many San Franciscos there are and mine was just one of them,” says MacNaughton. 

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.

This story originally aired on May 7, 2014.