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Wendy MacNaughton is Your New Art Crush

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Kristin Farr/KQED Education

We are Weird-Sciencing KQED Pop for our SPRING FEVER event tomorrow! All your favorite subjects and contributors will come to life and teach you how to be popular! Wendy MacNaughton and her partner Caroline Paul will be there setting an example on how to be innovative in illustration and storytelling. I caught up with Wendy in between bookings for her just-released collaboration with Caroline: Lost Cat:A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology.

KQED: I saw in your previous interview with KQED Arts you had a sign on your studio wall that said, "May the bridges I burn light the way." Is this a statement about artistic integrity? What does that mean to you?

Wendy: That's a painting by the designer Mike Monteiro (print by 20x200). It's a great reminder to keep moving ahead personally and artistically-- and when there is a cost involved in that, great-- it becomes an experience to learn from and use in the future.

photo via In The Make
photo via In The Make

KQED: If you could do drawn journalism with any fictional world or community, what would it be, and why? (For example, I would pick L. M. Montgomery's Price Edward Island and Octavia Butlers' distopic future from the Parable series).

Wendy: Part of the joy for me is uncovering hidden worlds under my own nose, in places I'm familiar. Recently I did a story on Chinatown, in an area I used to work a block away from. I thought I was pretty familiar with the area, but I got lucky and was invited into the ma jong gambling houses. I had no idea that this whole world existed. Now I see so much more. There are layered stories everywhere, in every community. I like to find them.

photo via Wendy's Tumblr via Wendy's Instagram
photo via Wendy's Tumblr via Wendy's Instagram

You guys get that? Wendy is encouraging us to look for the stories right around us instead of relying on fiction for the inspiring narratives in our lives!


KQED: I read that you decided social work wasn't for you because you became too involved and attached, and also that the stories you find most important are those that might get overlooked. This made me think about art as social practice, and how maybe you drawing people on 6th street is not equal to the direct service work of helping people access resources but that it is perhaps equally as important. What do you think?

Wendy: There's this thing called narrative therapy in social work practice in which you work with a client to examine their existing narrative, deconstruct it, and reconstruct a new, more empowering narrative. I like to think there's an element of that in my work. In this case, though, there are two clients: the people whose stories I'm telling, and the reader who is gaining an appreciation for communities outside of their own.

Also, I think it's important to note that the communities I'm looking at aren't always underprivileged. They are underrepresented. People who swim every day in the bay without a wetsuit get just as much a kick out of hearing their story reflected back to them as does someone struggling to make the rent in an SRO.

Dolphin Club Members swim in the SF Bay without wetsuits! This illustration is part of Wendy's "Meanwhile" series.
Dolphin Club Members swim in the SF Bay without wetsuits! This illustration is part of Wendy's "Meanwhile" series.

KQED: You've said that you feel a lot of responsibility in telling/honoring the stories of other people's lives. What does it mean to be a person of relative privilege telling the stories of those with less privilege in a rapidly gentrifying San Francisco?

Wendy: I think as a person of privilege I have a responsibility to use the access, resources and skills I have to benefit those that haven't been as lucky. I have consistent paid work that allows me to do additional work I don't get paid for, including most of these stories*. But it's complicated to work with people who are working so hard to make a day's ends meet and do my best to put myself in their shoes and empathize, then leave and return to a very comfortable home environment. I think about it a lot, and am often conflicted about it. I try to do my best to put the people I work with in the spotlight, make the work about them, not me, not spectacularize anything or anyone-- and I continue to question my own role in the changing face of San Francisco, how I am contributing to it. I do my best. I make mistakes. I keep trying to do it better.

Wendy's illustration for Peter Orner's NY Times Opinionator article "Who Owns That House?" about housing in San Francisco.
Wendy's illustration for Peter Orner's NY Times Opinionator article "Who Owns That House?" about housing in San Francisco.

KQED: Your collaboration with your partner Caroline Paul, Lost Cat just came out! Can you talk a little about your and Caroline's power-couple magic? Do you two communicate wordlessly through artistic gesture? What is your collaborative process like?

Wendy: It's out!! We're thrilled and having a really good time with it. Caroline has published two books before, and this is my first - and it's both of our first major collaboration. When couples work together (or at least us) the process and project can become a bit of a metaphor for the relationship. So when I didn't look at what Caroline sent me within a few minutes of her sending it to me, she'd say, "What, you don't love it? You don't love ME?" and of course that wasn't the case-- and when I said I'd get her something in a day, to me that meant a few days (I can have an "optimistic" sense of time that drives her crazy). We had to work through our respective processes and find a structure that worked for us both, and then stick to that structure. The whole thing was really fun. It's 50/50 drawings and writing, and though it's told from Caroline's POV, it's really a memoir of our story together.

Wendy, Left, Caroline, Right, and Lost Cat Tibia. Photo by Klea McKenna.
Wendy, left, Caroline, right, and Lost Cat Tibia. Photo by Klea McKenna.

KQED: Many KQED Pop readers are looking for their own artsy major collaborator. How did you and Caroline meet each other?

Wendy: We met first at a protest and then again at a reading, both times through a friend we had both hooked up with. What could be more SF than all that?


There you have it! Reality is the best fiction, art is service, and check on your exes' exes for partner potential. Thanks Wendy MacNaughton! And don't forget to RSVP to Spring Fever here. See you there!

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