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This Gutsy Gal and Her Wheel of Whiskeys: The Art of Wendy MacNaughton 

Wednesday, Mar 23 2016
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The first things I notice about Wendy MacNaughton after arriving at the artist and illustrator's studio on the northeastern fringe of Pier 70 are her thunderbolt earrings. Are they to commemorate the recently deceased David Bowie, or are they "just because"?

We're drinking herbal tea out of vintage Heath mugs in a spacious second-floor workspace overlooking the bay, in a quiet quadrant of the Dogpatch that hasn't yet traded on its industrial glamor to woo Super Bowl parties or massive food festivals. It's late in the afternoon in late January, and the windows admit only a little wan light. Even though the room is almost 1,400 square feet, it feels lighthouse-cozy rather than waterfront-dreary.

And MacNaughton definitely wore the earrings to mourn the passing of Ziggy Stardust.

"He's otherworldly, he can't die!" MacNaughton says, poking some fun at the extent of her grief (which we share). "It feels like I'm losing my youth." Her fiancée and business partner Caroline Paul is more than a decade older, and has warned her about the mounting deaths of one's idols: "It starts to happen."

Gregarious and lighthearted, the 40ish MacNaughton may not be youthful in the strictest sense, but her easy demeanor and the hand-drawn aesthetic of her illustrations suggest otherwise.

In a few prolific years, she's risen to become a major figure in contemporary art, one whose distorted maps, charmingly verbose illustrated historical explanations, and aphoristic visual observations on human behavior have been published in neighborhood newspapers like The Potrero View, glossy lifestyle magazines like 7x7, and national publications such as The New York Times.

She has also come to represent an entire city. San Francisco's arts scene is far too diffuse and multifaceted for one person to truly speak for all of it, but MacNaughton comes closer than anyone. Her squiggly, text-heavy pen drawings and instantly recognizable watercolors possess a goofy braininess and exude sweetness and light — even when she's drawing our eyeballs straight toward this city's most glaring contradictions.

"I don't really distinguish between the text and the quote-unquote drawing," MacNaughton says of her approach. I compare her style to Roz Chast, the New Yorker cartoonist whose 2014 book about her aging parents, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? was named a finalist for the National Book Award. It dove deeply into narrative territory, far beyond the antic, highly-caffeinated-looking single-panel bits about the minutiae of modernity seen in the magazine.

"I think that is a high compliment," MacNaughton says. "My handwriting has definitely changed over the years, but this seems to have stuck. If I write with a brush versus with a Micron Pigment 02, which is what I almost always use across the board, it's going to look different and bring out different things in my hand."

MacNaughton's first job out of school was as an advertising copywriter, which explains her word-centric style. ("I've been using words since I've been drawing, so I can't escape it.") She's taken on freelance lettering jobs, but apart from "some stuff on Medium," has never published written pieces without illustrations attached.

"It's still my voice, but my voice is visual and in the text. I would not call myself a writer," she says. Referring to another famous New Yorker cartoonist, she adds, "Saul Steinerg, he used to call himself a writer who draws. I would say I'm a draw-er who writes."

And she's a social worker at heart — she earned a master's in social work in 2005, and worked on democratic elections in Africa. I ask, somewhat insincerely, about her political affiliation — since anyone familiar with her gentle skewerings of 21st-century hipster affectations and explanatory run-downs of Golden Gate Park's bison can glean she's a classic San Francisco lefty, well-versed in city history.

"One of the things that attracted me to social work was that they have a very strict code of ethics," she says. "I'd worked in advertising and commercial art, and I was looking for some kind of structure. Social work does teach a very social justice, empowerment-based way of looking at the world, looking at systems, at how people work within systems."

When I press her more specifically about her views — Hillbot? Bernie Bro-ette? — she pauses.

"I have to be careful with this — because I'm a staunch Republican. Kidding! Wouldn't that be amazing? That would be crazy."

In some ways, MacNaughton's method is deceptively simple. Take the tea we're drinking. It's not just a prop useful for sitting and chatting.

A friend of hers is a tea purveyor. Paul is writing a book with him about tea, and MacNaughton will illustrate it. So she's learning a lot about tea right now (and possibly using this interview as an opportunity to apply the knowledge and learn more).

To lean on a dumb pun, food is MacNaughton's bread and butter. Illustrated street scenes may have only so much commercial viability, but books about food all but beg for artwork. And she's busy. After the year-end rush and before the new year's projects start in earnest, January sounds like it would be the dead zone for creative types tethered to the publishing world, just as May is for accountants and September is for camp counselors. Not so much, it turns out; MacNaughton is plenty occupied.

"Everything gets published in the spring or in the fall," she says, "and there are certain dates you have to make. And this happened to be mine."

Three main things are on MacNaughton's plate this week. First, there's Samin Nosrat, a chef from Chez Panisse, who's been working for 15 years on a "huge, epic book" called Salt Fat Acid Heat that's coming out sometime in the spring of 2017. It's 600 pages and 100 percent illustrated — which means no photography. She'd just turned in 100 full drawings of different foods, after working on the project for three years. (When I asked Nosrat about the project, she said it began after she'd written MacNaughton an "insane fan letter where I called her the Maira Kalman of our generation" after encountering her work in The Rumpus.) Second, she's drawing the cover to Knives & Ink, a tattoo book by Isaac Fitzgerald that focuses on the much-inked-up necks and forearms of chefs and other figures from the culinary world. (It's the follow-up to Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them, which MacNaughton also illustrated.)


About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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