Talking Process and Projects with Wendy MacNaughton

October 27, 2011

Wendy MacNaughton is an artist and illustrator living in San Francisco. She was recently awarded a $1,000 Awesome Foundation Grant to help fund Meanwhile: The San Francisco Public Library in it’s own Words— a narrative and illustrative documentary “about the people who work [at libraries], who use them, and how they serve as a community hub for many people, including the aging and homeless.” Wendy’s unique vision and observations pace themselves well in the scrolling narrative to be found online and in a newly published book. She has done a series of Meanwhiles and you can always find them on the Rumpus.

I’ve been talking with Wendy a bit about her project— on the phone, over dinner with other Awesome Trustees, and by email:

Why the San Francisco Public Library?

Wendy: My partner Caroline Paul is a writer and voracious reader who never buys books, only borrows them from the library. I think she suggested it first.

And a dear friend of mine, Anne Wintroub, was working at Friends of the [San Francisco Public] Library at the time—she suggested it as well and created the opportunity. Without her introductions to Jill Bourne, the deputy city librarian, and Michelle Jeffers, the SFPL PR officer, I would never have had the ease of access i did.  It was a collaborative idea, like good ideas often are.

Wendy is part of a team that produces Longshot—an occasional magazine experiment themed, written, illustrated, edited, designed, and printed in 48 hours. In one late night phone conversation Wendy explained to me her process for creating a “Meanwhile.”  My takeaways were this:

  • Each project takes about a month.
  • Wendy visits a location with an idea, knowing that idea will be transformed just by the process. She spends time onsite—it could be from a  a day to a week—talking to people, taking notes, and of course, sketching. Back at her home studio Wendy refines some of the sketches through drawing and painting.
  • The quotes —she refers to the them as “all these voices” from the experience—are redrawn, cut into strips and arranged on the floor with corresponding painting/illustrations. (I have a mental image of Wendy sitting in a patchwork of drawings and words on her studio floor arranging and ordering and creating something that didn’t exist just hours before.
  • Production consists of scanning the quotes and images into Photoshop, doing mild color correction or touch up as required.  The last step is prepping and uploading files for Rumpus, the online home of Meanwhile.
  • Production takes place in 48 hours, the last evening is always an all nighter and Wendy embraces it as part of the process.

That 48 hour sprint must make you a pro for LongShot production schedules. Can you share a bit what working on LongShot as been like?

Wendy: Longshot is a great adventure—it has gotten smoother every time, but I don’t think there will ever be a set schedule or routine.  A lot of the success of Longshot is everyone’s flexibility and willingness to do anything, anytime, for anyone.  Which everyone does. That’s why they’re there.  It’s a really incredible group of smart, creative and tireless people and a fun, exhausting process.  I’m sure everyone gets something unique of participating, but I do think everyone shares at least one outcome—a huge sense of camaraderie —it is great to work in one place with people you respect all at one, non-stop— do something impossible.

How do people react when sketching them?

Wendy: Most don’t notice and if they do then I smile and nod and they do the same back. Sometimes people ask me to stop so I stop. Sometimes people put on lipstick and strike a pose.

What do you focus on when sketching someone? What to you seek to see deeply?

Wendy: You can tell so much about a persons mood, life, disposition—by they way they hold their weight.  And the angles of their face. I don’t love classically pretty people as subjects. They might be nice to look at, but they are boring to draw.

How did the Awesome Foundation grant help you?

Wendy: I am not paid for any of the Meanwhile stories I do. it’s my own project and it takes about 40-50% of my time. That means that I am taking on double the amount of paying work to support the project, and not sleeping.  The grant gave me some time away from paid projects so iIcould put more energy into the story. and I think it paid off.  It is the best Meanwhile yet, I believe.

How would you describe the Awesome Foundation to someone?

Wendy: A small group of people who want to help support local projects. Those people might not be able to give a huge chunk of money themselves, but put ten people together who can each give 100, and it makes a sizable fund.  Grantees don’t have to spend weeks putting together a huge grant  [application]—which is SUCH a relief.

So, now there is a book published from the SF Public Library project. Can you tell me more about the book that came out of this project?

Wendy: The mayor’s office funded the publication of the book. We gave some [copies of the book] to the library, some to the city, sold a big number of them to the library at cost so they could resell them and keep all the proceeds, and part of the proceeds of the remaining books will go to the SFPL as well.

How many copies?

Wendy: We printed 1000.  I hope we go into another printing.

Where can people get a copy of the book?

Wendy: Online at Etsy and at shops in San Francisco including: Electric Works, SFMOMA, Booksmith, The Curiosity Shoppe, The General Store, and hopefully soon Books Inc, Green Apple and Mrs. Dalloways in Oakland.

What next?

I have a piece in a group show at Intersection for the Arts called Here Be Dragons curated by Kevin Chen centered on the idea of mapping. I spent a few weeks hanging out around 5th and 6th Street south of Market and the result is a sort of non-linear narrative installation on the area, its history and the people who live there and pass through. The whole show is really great including other artists like Tucker Nichols and Jenny Odell. I’m thrilled to be included.

My partner and I just sold a book we’ve been working on to Bloomsbury (she’s writing it and i’m illustrating it) so that will come out next year, and I’m hoping to make a book of the Meanwhiles telling stories around San Francisco (including the SF library). That’s with a publisher right now.

In the meantime, I have work coming out in magazines like Lucky Peach, Edible SF, Bold Italic, and a new illustration for My Life Is True just came out, a project sharing powerful personal stories via NPR and the internet that people wouldn’t otherwise get to hear.

Any words of encouragement for pursuing awesome ideas?

It’s easy.  Do it.