Do you know the names of all the bison in Golden Gate Park? Do you know how people on 6th Street really feel about living there? Have you ever stopped to ask? Wendy MacNaughton makes a habit of asking, sketchbook in hand, as she creates illustrated journalism projects about San Francisco. These stories are collected in her new book, Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in its Own Words. Our beloved city is currently very sensitive, angst-y, and in desperate need of a creative reminder of the multiformity that has made this place special to so many of us for so long.
For three years, MacNaughton embedded herself in communities, situations, and landmarks, listening to stories and illustrating them. She's a former social worker, and she is a good listener who has a gift for illuminating the sameness in all of us, as well as the admirable differences. She talked to a cross-section of local folks, including MUNI drivers, dog walkers, farmer's market vendors, and people who swim in the hella cold bay without wetsuits.
She talks about the good stuff (burritos, maker culture) and the difficult stuff (gentrification, food justice issues). She's a poetic, respectful storyteller, and she lets you fill in the blanks. You know exactly what she is saying in those very quiet spaces on the page. And she nails the little details, like the specific spot in Dolores Park where couples go to have serious talks or break up. I broke up in that exact spot ten years ago! Her observations are uncanny, and every little thing she draws is charming and feels immediate. You can sense her presence and full investment in every moment. Macnaughton has illustrated other books, but this her first solo publication. It is The City in its Own Words, but the words are recorded, selected and illustrated by a thoughtful investigator.
There are so many things to love about Wendy's style, which we learned more about when she was featured on
Art School in 2013. She talked about her process and
showed us how to draw beverages, and we captured her laying out a story about SF's Main Library, which is included in the new book.
MacNaughton identifies as an illustrator, but to me, she's an artist who integrates documentation, drawing, painting, lettering, thoughts, facts, and dialogue snippets. I love her handwriting, how her isolation of text creates emotion, and how she only writes the littlest words in cursive. And her illustrations are so painterly. Just wait until you get to the book's final spread. Spoiler alert: It's the Outer Sunset and it's a stunner.
I don't live in SF anymore, but I work here, and MacNaughton's book left me nostalgic and even more curious about the future of The City. It illuminates all the beautiful, intriguing, and incomprehensible realities that exist here. A copy of it should be left in the nightstand drawer of every hotel and $6k-per-month apartment in the Mission, like a Gideon's Bible for San Francisco. It's full of good stories.
P.S. The book's cover folds out into a poster detailing SF's neighborhoods. More prints from the book are available at
Check out Wendy MacNaughton's Art School interview: