Despite the whimsical nature of her drawings, make no mistake: San Francisco artist Wendy MacNaughton is a gifted urban anthropologist. Her newest book, Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City In Its Own Words, is an insightful, illustrated compendium of contemporary city life.
MacNaughton spent hours in San Francisco's urban institutions, from libraries to farmers markets to the public transit system, drawing the people she met there. Drawing actually enables her to gather some rather telling observations: Because she's sketching in a notebook, her work is not as intrusive as, say, a street photographer or a pesky journalist—she's able to gain true insight about people and the neighborhoods they live in. Although this particular book is about San Francisco, it's actually a celebration of all cities, especially the corners we don't normally see on our daily commutes.
I talked to MacNaughton about hidden neighborhoods, the importance of listening, and how we can all find ways to love our cities a little more.
Gizmodo: I remember seeing one of these illustrations a while back. How did the project start?
Wendy MacNaughton: The first "Meanwhile" I ever did isn't included in the book. It was created for the online literary magazine The Rumpus and tells the story of the Market Street chess players, a group of guys who play chess every day on folding chairs and tables in the heart of downtown San Francisco. I was always curious about them, who they were, what their lives were like, why they played so much chess. I was used to doing single-image narratives, and The Rumpus's comics editor Paul Madonna suggested I try a longer-form piece.
What was your process like?
I took my sketchbook and went downtown and just started drawing them. For hours. For days. And I got to know these rough and tumble guys—sometimes they were drunk or high or whatever, but mostly they were these fascinating, super-smart men with difficult backgrounds and profound thoughts on the meaning of chess. I knew I wanted to use text to their story, but I felt it was important that the subjects speak for themselves and not put my words in their mouths, so I decided to write down everything they said. After a couple weeks of hanging out with them, I took all the drawings I'd done and all their words, and I put them together to tell their story. That was the first "Meanwhile."
And then you used the same format for a story about the public library.
The library story that is included in Meanwhile in San Francisco came a bit later, after I'd done a few more and worked out the process. I spent a month hanging out in the main branch of the public library and learned so much—not only about the people there, but the role that libraries are playing in today's digital age. They have become more of a social center and support system than before—and they're needed more than ever. After the story was done I worked with the public library, mayor's office and the awesome library foundation to publish it as a little stand-alone book.
What was the most important thing you learned about cities while creating this book?
I think after living in a city for a little while, we come to think of it as our own. And that's great. It's good to form a deep connection with our home. But I also think we forget that our city, the little part of a city we know, is like one of one thousand different cities all going on in the same place at the same time. And the city we love is great just because of that. The diversity of culture and experience is what makes an urban experience so rich.
That's where the title comes from. Meanwhile, meaning, while I'm doing whatever I'm doing, working or at a meeting or out to dinner or feeding the cats or whatever— meanwhile, there are hundreds of thousands of other stories going on, many vastly different from my own, and all of them just as important. It's not my city—it's our city—and I don't want to forget that.
Did it change your relationship with San Francisco?
I'm a fifth-generation San Franciscan and I had no idea about any of these communities before I started exploring. Now San Francisco seems so much more to me than before. I feel like I'm actually part of the city, instead of just enjoying what I get out of it.
How much time did you generally spend in a place for the book? Did you go back? Combine multiple visits into one story?
I spent anywhere from an hour to a month on the stories in the book. For the longer stories I spent more time—I would hang out as often as I could and just draw, talk with people, get to know them. I'd talk to anywhere between one and 40 people for the stories and write down everything they say. At the end I'd combine all those voices into one voice that speaks for the community.
Each time the story would snowball, too. I'd go to a park to talk to one person who would suggest I go to some alley to talk to another person, who would take me to meet a shopkeeper, and on and on. I'd keep going until I felt like I really had a handle on the story, on the narrative, which was never what I thought it was going to be when I first started out.
Who was your favorite person to meet?
I met so many great people—and all so different. From Lou the Glue, the custodian of the historic Dolphin Club—who just passed away, RIP Lou—to Matt Dick, the maker of beautiful hand-crafted work wear, to Bigface, an artist who was living in a shelter downtown (and has since gotten housing and is studying to become a mortician), to Mark Ellinger, an incredible San Francisco historian and photographer who lived in an SRO on 6th Street for years, to Doc, the celebrated surfer and long time resident of the Outer Sunset.
Have you kept in touch?
I have kept in touch with many people but not all. Some I have real friendships with now, and some I never spoke to again. It's an unusual privilege to drop in on someone's life, to be welcomed in and hear their story—and then go back home. I feel a profound thanks and responsibility to everyone I spend time with, and I want to do their stories justice, and do right by them. I haven't always done things perfectly, but I try. I don't take the relationship lightly.
I could definitely see that in a few stories, especially, I felt, in the chapter about the bus, where you were able to sit with people during the somewhat stressful time of the morning commute where people don't want to be bothered—you were able to elicit such wonderful responses from them. What do you suggest citizens like me do to have this same connection and experience you got to have?
I understand that everyone doesn't want to hang out for days with strangers, let alone draw them. But I don't think you have to in order to get the sense of connection to communities outside your own in a city.
I think the first thing someone can do is to take walks and explore areas of the city that they've never been to on foot before. It's one thing to drive through an area—it's a different thing entirely to walk though. It forces eye contact, and maybe even an exchange of smiles, which is the first step in connecting with people.
I also think reading up on the history of a place and the people who have lived and worked there opens up a fantastic Pandora's box of questions and curiosities about our home. It connects us to the past and helps us see we're part of something bigger, which gets back to the whole Meanwhile idea.
What city would you like to do next?
Good question. Hard to say because any city would be an adventure. I'd love to explore L.A. because of the history of separation in the city and the hundreds of culturally specific neighborhoods, and the fact that most people don't walk, so it would be fun to find and share those diverse stories. Of course, New York would be fantastic because it has maybe more stories per square foot than any city in the country. But what would also be fun would be to look at some towns in other areas of the country, too—find those stories.
We're in an interesting time I think, where people are photographing and posting images of different urban environments. I'm always discovering new parts of the city from my friends' social media feeds.
I think it's great that people are taking photos and sharing them on Instagram or Hipstamatic or whatever. I love seeing glimpses into people's different cultures. I think there's a real opportunity for sharing diversity and insight there. I'm thinking of starting a #meanwhile hashtag for people to start sharing unique, off-the-mainstream track urban moments. What do you think?
I think that sounds like a great idea! And maybe you could use the hashtag as a way to discover new places, and you could go illustrate those people and communities.
Maybe I'm less interested in a specific city per se than I am finding rich, diverse stories in places that don't usually get a spotlight. There's something to learn from everyone. I enjoy getting to listen. And I look forward to doing more.
All images courtesy Wendy MacNaughton