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Wendy MacNaughton: Listen to Strangers

About this talk

There’s a prevailing myth that great works are created by lone savant-types who locks themselves in a room for days. But illustrator & graphic journalist Wendy MacNaughton believes that the best stuff comes when we get out of our own heads and look for inspiration around us, like listening to the stories of strangers. 

From the voting booths in Rwanda to the porches of San Francisco, she walks us through the eye-opening illustration projects that were the result of “avoiding easy.” Whether it’s by talking to social workers, infiltrating a Mahjong game, or standing on street corners, MacNaughton says that being uncomfortable is what leads to creative breakthroughs. “It’s pretty incredible when we stop assuming we know what’s going on,” she says.


Wendy MacNaughton, Illustrator & Graphic Journalist

Wendy MacNaughton is an illustrator and graphic journalist whose books include Meanwhile in San Francisco, The City in Its Own Words, Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology, The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming A Wine Expert, and Pen & Ink, Tattoos and The Stories Behind Them. Her work appears in places like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Print Magazine.

She lives in San Francisco with two cats, one dog and her partner, writer Caroline Paul.

Full Transcript

So, I am an illustrator and a graphic journalist. That means I tell stories using pictures and text. I make what I call illustrated documentaries, and I just published a collection of them called “Meanwhile in San Francisco.” That’s the book. It’s a collection of 17 of these stories, and I’m going to talk a little bit about that and the stories that are in them, but before I do that I’ve got to take a step back and give you a little bit of context to how I started making these stories in the way that I do.

So, I started drawing when I was really little and loved it. I love life drawing and drawing people. I took it really seriously. I was very fortunate. I ended up going to art school, and like a lot of people who go to art school, within a couple months I stopped drawing and painting, and I started making perhaps the worst conceptual art anybody has ever seen in their lives. [LAUGHTER] For example. This is me. I’m 19, and I’m having a staring contest with a video camera for two hours and 46 minutes. The video camera won. So clearly, clearly being a performance artist was not really going to work out. It wasn’t in the cards for me, so when I graduated I went to San Francisco and I started working as a copywriter in advertising and even though it wasn’t what I was expecting, it was a total dream job. I was working at this amazing agency, I had what I thought was like this, the best creative position, and I was working on great campaigns. There was also $0.25 beers in the vending machines and a badminton court directly downstairs. So it was super fun, but for some reason I was really unhappy. I thought that I could use advertising to make people think. It was this powerful art form, but what I ended up doing was making up kind of funny jokes to sell ice cream. And that’s why when I was offered this opportunity to go to Rwanda and create the voter education campaign for the first free and fair democratic election, I took it. So I had no idea what I was in for at all, but I knew I could do the job because I thought I could come up with these genius ideas like I was doing at the ad agency. And I could draw, and that was really important because at the time half the population of the country couldn’t read and everything had to be in pictures. So I said, Yes, got a plane, arrived in Kigali. And I did what I always did. I got in, super confident, and I got down to work, kind of locked myself up in my little room, and I started coming up with these really great ideas, and I mean they were like really great ideas. They were super strong metaphors, simple concepts, very clean, the design was really great, if I do say so myself. And I went and I presented them to the guy who’s the head of the electoral commission, this big guy. And I was like, Yeah, hey, check out this idea. It’s genius. Everybody is going love it. It’s going to be great, and he’s like, Hmm, no. That doesn’t make any sense. I was like, No, see? It’s great, voting, amazing. He’s like, No, that doesn’t translate here. I was like, What? Oh my God. And all of these ideas they were totally specific to my way of thinking. They didn’t make any sense there, and really quickly I had to learn a completely different way of working. I was put together with a cultural advisor, her name was Beatrice, and she and I talked a ton. She took me all around, we talked to a bunch of people, asked a million questions, solicited ideas, and I did my best to really listen and to trust what other people were telling me. We created a series of posters and flyers. One of them was this one. Dutore. That means we vote. The thumbs up means the same thing there it means here. It’s good Thumb print, that is how people there vote, not by signature, but by thumb print. So thumb print, thumbs up, dutore, good to vote. Other one. This is how to vote. This is– these are all the steps. It features a man there on the bottom after he’s gone through all those steps. He’s holding up his voter ID card which everybody was given to vote, and he’s saying, Yay, look at me I voted. So. The posters and flyers went all over the country, and I’m happy to say it was a total success. There was a 94% percent voter turnout. 94%. Oh my god. Crazy. The head of the electoral commission, he was thrilled, and I was thrilled. However, several weeks after the election someone pointed out something to me that was a little unsettling, something I didn’t know. People in Rwanda used to have these ethnic ID cards that stated if they were Hutu or Tutsi, and during the genocide, people would be asked to show their ID cards, and if their ID card said that they were Tutsi or if they didn’t have one, they would be killed on the spot. So, remember that lower right hand, lower left hand corner? That could have been misread as somebody showing a card showing proof that they voted and they would be fine, right? But if they didn’t show the card and prove that they voted, who knows what the consequences would be. So I was completely stunned. Did people know this, the people that I was working with? Was this intentional? Did they actually mean to communicate this message? Was it a mistake? Had we all completely overlooked it? Or were we all completely over thinking things and this was just a great campaign, everything went fine? I don’t know. I will never know. But what it did show me is that everything that I make that is a visual and goes out into the world has ramifications. And everything that I make I have to take responsibility for. And I was never taught how to learn to really listen to people and think about those things. So, I decided to go back to school in order to do that. And the best thing that I found to do that was social work, which I know most of you, I thought, is all about like family therapy and child protective services, but what it actually is it’s a way of thinking about a person within all the systems and environments that we all live in, and it has a code of ethics, and it’s all about listening and it’s all about asking questions, and helping people share stories who otherwise don’t get heard. So I got this great training, and I moved back to the Bay Area, and I’m commuting back and forth between Oakland and downtown in San Francisco which means I’m on the subway, which a lot of you guys here probably know, it’s like 20 minutes each way five days a week. And I’m at this job that looks great again on paper, but I’m not really digging it, and I’m on the subway all the time, and I’m looking around, and I see all these people, and they’re sitting there totally still kind of like you guys are right now. Kind of wish I had a pen. And I’m like oh my God, they’re just like the life models that I used to draw way back in the day, and so I reach in my bag and I pick up my pen, and I had a Moleskine, and I take out my Moleskine, and I started drawing. And it was like, oh my God. Has this happened to you guys? But it’s like, this is what I do. It’s like this is who I am. It was like the best feeling. I completely fell back in love with drawing again, and I fell back in love also with just like looking at people. Oh my gosh, I wish I had a pen right now. You guys are such a great audience. [LAUGHTER] So, anyway I end up drawing all these people between their home and work. I go home and I paint them later, and I am staring at them, and I’ll draw them, and then I start writing little words, text next to them because they’re going in between their home and their professional life, and I start kind of imagining what they’re imagining, and then sometimes I also project my own thoughts onto them about what I’m thinking. [LAUGHTER] And and that is how I learned how to draw in public, which is how I learned to draw the way that I draw now, and that means drawing really fast. Because I’m like, so I stand when I draw. So I’m standing there, like this, like I’m holding my pad and I’m standing like this and drawing, and– because at any second anybody could get up and jump off the train. And then I learned draw without looking down because that’s fast, and also because if you see somebody going like this, you know, like that’s probably going to be a little bit distracting. And also if somebody does notice me, I learned how to be very, very nice and make them feel comfortable, and be stealth but also very polite and interact with people in a really different way. So, I’m taking all of this super seriously. I started this blog, I’m putting everything up all the time, everything I do, and after a few years of these, and people start asking if they can buy them, I get offered commissions, and oh my gosh, that’s it. I’m out of here. I’ve got to do this and I make that commitment. And that’s when I started to turn these kind of single frame snippets into these longer true stories that I called Meanwhiles. And I decided that if I am going to be telling other people’s stories, I’m not going to put my words in their mouth like I’m doing here, but I’m going to let them speak for themselves, and that’s what became Meanwhiles. And Meanwhile’s basic idea is this. I spend anywhere from a day to a month with people, getting to know them, hanging out. It’s not like interviews, it’s much more conversational. We just hang out, and all the while I’m drawing everything I see, anything that I notice that I think is interesting, and I try to get to know the community as best I can. And I’m also writing down everything everybody says. I take my pictures, and their words and put them together to tell a story. So the first one of these Meanwhiles that I did, one of the first ones was the San Francisco Public Library. I thought it would be a great place to do a story on the aging community because I really dig old people. I think they’re great stories. And I started hanging out there drawing things and people and chatting with a lot of the regulars, all the people who were just sitting, and I was observing all this stuff, but as much as I tried to get people to talk about old people, I was constantly asking, I was getting nowhere. So one day I’m standing on the balcony, I’m talking to one of the guards, this guy named D and I’m trying to get him, I’m like so, D, how about the old people, and he’s like, Yeah, I don’t know about that. And this guy walks up, probably in his ’40s or so, and he interrupts our conversation, and he asks, What are you talking about? And I tell him what I’m doing, I’m drawing, and instead, though, of saying, And I want to know about the old people, I decided that I’m going to open up the question, and I say, I’ve just been wondering like, What do you think is special about the library? What does it mean to you? And he says, Well, if it wasn’t for the library I’d still be on the streets. That’s interesting. Can you tell me more about that? And he goes, Yeah, it’s because of Leah. Leah’s a social worker who works here, who helps people, and I’m like, I had no idea. So he takes me and he introduces me to Leah. And it turns out that Leah is the first and at the time the only social worker dedicated to a library anywhere in the country, if not the world. And she’s amazing, and she started this homeless outreach program all within the library. And she takes me and she introduces me to Charles. Charles was formally unless, got off the streets with the help of Leah, and now he himself is doing outreach within the walls the library. And I am completely blown away. I had no idea. And then once I start looking at the library through that lens, it’s like this entire different world opens up to me. So I did stuff like stand and just watch for five minutes who comes through one set of doors in the library. That’s 59 people. They were coming in so fast I couldn’t write them down. And I go and I look at what I thought were just sinks, but once I’m looking at them this way I see that they’re in fact used as detergent, soap, a laundromat. And this entire story unfolds. It’s one far better than I could have ever imagined if I had just worked on my own. Close to this library, there’s another neighborhood. Fifth and Sixth and Mission. And there’s a pretty famous San Francisco building at Fifth and Mission, the Chronicle newspaper. It used to be the hub of all of the news. Now it still has the newspaper, but it also has a lot of tech companies, and has co-working spaces, it has a great nonprofit gallery, and it’s a real transient place. Fifth Street basically looks a lot like this, Fifth and Mission. People are walking by, going to and from work, they’re parking, they’re shopping and Bloomingdale’s. And then just one block away at Sixth and Mission it’s a completely different kind of transient place. It’s considered one of the toughest blocks in San Francisco. It has the largest concentration of residential hotels, and it has all of the issues associated with poverty going on there. Crime, drugs, and mental illness, and I was learn interested in learning how these two completely different worlds ended up existing just a block apart. So I did what I do, and I started hanging out there. At first I hung out at Fifth and Mission because there was a coffee shop, and that’s fine. I could hang out I could draw, and that was fine, and people were walking by. But no matter what I tried to kind of start to interact with people, I wasn’t getting anywhere. But it was easy, and I was not scared, and honestly I was scared to go hang out on Sixth Street. It was a street that I had avoided before, and I didn’t know what to expect, but I had committed to doing this story, and so I got my pad and I got my pen I walked over, and I put myself right on the corner of Sixth Street. And this weird thing happened. As I stood there, and I started drawing for a couple minutes, and really quickly people started stopping and they started asking what I was doing, and they wanted to look at the drawing, and they started commenting on it, and then they started asking if I would draw them. So when people stick cameras or microphones in our faces, I’m sure you guys have happened, even with like an iPhone or something, like I think that we feel pretty objectified. We feel like our space has been invaded. But with drawing, it’s a little different. It’s actually very disarming. Instead of getting offended, people get interested in what I’m doing. They even get flattered, and they start talking to you and they start making eye contact, which doesn’t happen very often in this city. And then you have a conversation, and then a relationship starts. So after hanging around Sixth Street for a few days, I met a few people who became my guide, including this is Ray. He was born on Sixth Street, he’s a photographer. He introduced me to Big Face, a collage artist who was living in a shelter at the time. We hung out and drank beer out of a coffee cup at 11 am, and I got some of the best stories I’ve ever heard in my life, and this entire community unfolded in front of me that I had no idea was even there. For example, I stood on the corner of the two streets for five minutes, and I wrote down what I heard. Here’s 5th Street. Things like, Spotty wireless, like 4 o’clock ish, a time when I was trying to pay into fuel. And then here’s 6th Street. I don’t know, man, Hey, hey hey, beautiful lady, yes you are. That’s nice. Well, hello. And all of the ones with asterisks, those are people talking to me. What? Oh my God. So these two very, very different communities revealed themselves to me. They’re both equally important in San Francisco.

Comments (3)
  • Sunny

    Love it! She’s AMAZING!

  • Franzi

    I love Wendy MacNaughton’s work and her talk is incredibly inspiring! Thanks for sharing it 🙂

  • Wilone Ambrose

    ♥ ♥ Google “The Truth Contest” ♥ ♥

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