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

  • By Peter Lawrence Kane
  • Wed Mar 23rd, 2016 5:00pm
  • FeatureNews

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 7×7, 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.)


The third project is more personal. She and Paul have collaborated on The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure, an illustrated book “for girls eight to 12 years old, to inspire them to get adventurous and get outdoors. It has all of her stories,” MacNaughton says of her fiancée. “She's been a firefighter, she trained for the Olympics in luge. She profiles diverse women throughout time who've done awesome stuff.”

Paul has also skied Denali and scaled the Golden Gate Bridge untethered, but The Gutsy Girl has a lot more than just her C.V. It's more Radical Brownies than Girl Scouts — no lanyards here — with inspirational-yet-non-platitudinous chapters (“Aim High! But, Sometimes, Not Too High”) broken up by mini-bios of “Girl Heroes” (Mae Jemison, the first female African-American astronaut; Annie Taylor, the first person to head over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive) and sections called “Derring-Do” that demonstrate how to tell the time from the position of the sun or simply give encouragement to perform five “acts of microbravery” in a week. There are also one- and two-page spreads and charts that range from the practical (“How to Build a Boat Out of Milk Cartons,” in eight steps) to the silly (“The Anatomy of the Brain of a Gutsy Girl,” a cross-section of 15 made-up regions of the cerebral cortex, phrenology-style).

“I'm helping her with pushing this baby out into the world,” MacNaughton says. (To belabor the metaphor, it's not their first child together: Previously, they collaborated on Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology.) “That's a part of the publishing and the arts stuff that I never expected: It is like a baby, you spend all this time growing the baby and you have to raise it in the world, get it out there.”

About working with her life partner, Paul calls it a “no-brainer,” citing MacNaughton's facility with infographics, Venn diagrams, flowcharts, and other means of conveying knowledge which people who work in advertising often acquire a love for.

“Wendy was the best choice for The Gutsy Girl,” Paul says, “though when I first explained the idea to her, we both pretended to hem and haw about who was going to illustrate it. She was suggesting other people, and I was saying, 'Oh, yeah, OK, I'll look her work up on the Internet.' We were playing it cool, communicating that we weren't taking each other for granted, that collaboration was not a given, just because we were in a relationship.”

“Wendy was swamped with work at the time — and continues to be,” Paul adds. “But she believed in The Gutsy Girl's mission. If this had been a book about knock-knock jokes, she would have politely declined.”

The Gutsy Girl was published March 1. What makes that fact all the more notable is that, by most people's standards, MacNaughton hasn't really worked at this for terribly long. Born in San Francisco and raised in Marin, she lived overseas and in New York City before moving back to the Bay Area — first to Oakland, and now in Potrero Hill.

And it was only around 2010 that her work began popping up in places like The Rumpus, Pop-Up Magazine, and The Bold Italic (in its original, Gannett-owned incarnation). I became aware of MacNaughton's work via her compendium of 17 neighborhoods and institutions, Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in Its Own Words — specifically through the comparison between the scenes on Fifth and Sixth streets. It's unsentimental but judgment-free: She catalogues some mostly forgotten periods of Central SoMa's housing turmoil and lists things she overhears at different street corners over the span of five minutes (acknowledging unwelcome catcalls with nothing more than asterisks and the postscript “*Directed to the Artist”). Above all, it is honest. There are portraits of grinning faces and of people walking away, plain circles listing all the neighborhood's various smells, and wry watercolors of the coffee cups people line up to drink beer out of starting at 6 a.m.

Sarah Han was the content director at The Bold Italic when MacNaughton began contributing there. (Disclosure: I was a contributor to The Bold Italic as well, but our tenure barely overlapped, and we never met.)

“I loved how wonderfully handmade Wendy's illustrations feel, from her use of watercolor to her decision to handprint all her type,” Han says. “Her images, while very detailed and well-drawn, reminded me of taking a peek into someone's private sketchbook or diary of doodles, as her drawings usually have funny or poignant notes written around them. I also could tell immediately that she was in love with San Francisco, and that she knew the city and all its good, bad, weird, and wonderful quirks well.”

This requires the kind of dedication that can sometimes feel like a total collapse of work-life balance, yet an undertaking like Meanwhile in San Francisco implies the creator is enough of a flaneur to spend at least part of the day away from her desk, absorbing San Francisco's full-spectrum randomness.

“I remember at least once a day, something weird would happen,” MacNaughton says of a phase earlier in her career. “At the end of the day, I'd have a weird story, like 'I saw this woman, and from the back I thought she was actually a dog, but she was a woman.' Just weird stuff like you really only see when your mind is open and you're really looking for it. I think part of the challenge of having your artwork being your job is that it comes with this pressure that can sometimes close that down.”


When I ask MacNaughton how much time she spends in her studio these days, she shakes her head to the very suggestion of a nine-to-five life.

“I would say I'm here six or seven days a week,” she says, “but I work every day in some way, shape, or form — because my work is my life. I can't really draw much of a distinction.”

(It's not all toil, however. There's a beverage cart stocked with bourbon labeled “Genius Bar,” and people sometimes come over to socialize. “There have been many beers that have been had here,” MacNaughton says.)

She dodged each of my attempts to goad her into dropping names, except to express giddy joy at even hovering at the periphery of some of her heroes: “It's been so cool that just by kind of buckling down and doing my own stuff that those kinds of opportunities to meet people who I so respect and admire. I'm geeking out, like 'What? I'm having drinks with you?!”

But she's unquestionably moved onto higher-profile gigs and commissions recently. This spring, for example, she designed explanatory postcards for The Perennial, a SoMa restaurant by Anthony Myint, Karen Leibowitz, and Chris Kiyuna that puts great emphasis on sustainable kitchen practices.

And as anybody who freelances for a living knows, work leads to more work. MacNaughton had coffee a few years ago with an art director from her copywriting days, Crystal English Sacca. (Sacca is married to Chris Sacca, the cowboy-shirt-clad Googler-turned-venture-capitalist who bet early on Twitter, Instagram, and Uber.)

Crystal English Sacca was to be the art director for a book about wine written by Richard Betts, a Coloradan who famously passed the Master Sommelier exam on the first try and whose mission is to demolish notions that wine must be solely the province of the snobbish.

There was a joke that the best way to convince people of wine's populism would be to fall back on that venerable genre of the people, the scratch 'n' sniff book. The joke soon turned serious.

“They kept talking about it and decided maybe it could happen,” MacNaughton says. “Crystal and I had coffee and I was like, 'That's my favorite topic: wine. So I'm in.' We started this fun project and it became a New York Times best-seller, which was crazy.”

To write it, they “basically locked ourselves in a cabin for a week,” MacNaughton says. She used wine in lieu of watercolors to paint, and bought fruit to arrange so that she could draw from life — her preferred method, as it creates a “totally different line quality” than using a photograph.

“It's important to draw the line from life,” she says. “So I had to taste a lot. You have to suffer for the art!”

It was a runaway success, so the Betts-MacNaughton-Sacca trio repeated this exercise again with last year's follow-up, The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Whiskey Know-It-All.

Both books are short and breezy, consisting of little more than pure information, illustrated and demarcated with olfactory delights. Take the two pages on whiskey barrels, which spell out the word “WOOD” in staves and contain extended index fingers pointing to aromatic circles marked vanilla, cinnamon, and toast. The charming design and demystifying wisdom about barrel-aging — “Older just means older (and usually more expensive); it doesn't necessarily mean better. That's up to your taste” — give no indication the writer possesses a palate superior to virtually everyone else's on the planet.

For Richard Betts, the possessor of said palate, working with Wendy was “a total joy.”

“She's such a feeling person that she's capable of gathering and expressing the exact emotion that we're going for,” he says. “It's the same with her portraiture — she just grabs the essence and renders it beautiful in a minimal number of strokes.”

In the back of each book is an ingenious, color-coded, 360-degree tasting wheel, which is as useful as it is clever. “How Do You Like Your Whiskey?” subdivides the entire brown liquor phylum into pie-shaped wedges and concentric circles indicating a given whiskey's place, wood, and grain — all hand-drawn by MacNaughton — with hundreds of brand names extending from the outer ring, perpendicularly, in a gradient of quality ranging from “mix” to “sip.”

If you know you like cookie dough, and the scratch 'n' sniff's cedar and sandalwood turned you on, you might gravitate toward Japanese whisky. But if you're more into nuttiness and maple flavors, look to Canada.

“It works!” MacNaughton says of the wheel. “Somehow the three of us ended up taking paper grocery bags, cutting them apart, taping them together, putting them out on a table, and realizing we had two flowcharts — but if you put them together, they end up making this 360-degree flowchart, and that works perfectly.”

Members of the group drank all of the 280 to 300 whiskeys in order to place them on the wheel, although at a certain point, MacNaughton abdicated responsibility.

“That's where Crystal and I were like, 'Goodbye, let us know how it goes!' [Betts and his girlfriend] said the first 20 were fun, but after that it's painful.”

Illustrating a book based on drinking good booze to excess is a fine way to make a living, and by her own admission, MacNaughton is currently in a place where she's “doing some things over here for money and some things over here, not so much.” But achieving financial success can dissolve one's worries — only to see them coalesce anew, guided by a different set of anxieties. Her latest commission, a book, seems to magnify that.

“When I was hustling so hard, I had a laundry list of things,” she says. “But now, when people make a really generous, open-ended offer like that, it comes with a lot of pressure, like 'This needs to be the right thing,' as opposed to just 'This is really interesting to me.'

This latest project developed out of a small artist-in-residence stipend the Zen Hospice Program offered MacNaughton last year, an emotionally challenging endeavor that brings her in close proximity with the dying.


“It's just been such an education and a real honor to be allowed into that very private and meaningful environment with wonderful people who've been so generous,” she says. “If you'd told me two years ago I was going to do that, I would have been like, 'That sounds so depressing.' But the thing is, it's not depressing. It's sad. It's quite beautiful, the environment that has been created: the volunteers, the nurse, the caregiver. It's the way that it should be. It's sad to face reality if death is going to happen — but given that it's going to happen, isn't this the way it should?”

San Francisco bursts with brilliant people who have creative passions, but for whom practical considerations dictate that their artistic hobbies remain only that: hobbies. From time to time, one meets people for whom the ditching of the corporate world feels like such an easy and inevitable part of their career arc that you wonder why anybody would ever sweat it.

But even MacNaughton's studio was the product of a job. Forest City, Pier 70's developer, hired her to do a story on the history of the waterfront in anticipation of the former commercial shipyard's eventual redevelopment into housing, offices, and a mall. Being a “San Francisco lefty,” she initially declined.

“I'm like, 'I'm not working with you. I'm not contributing to the demise. You're the man!'” she says. “They're like, “OK, that's fine. But it is going to get developed. So we can either do that and use the surveys the port has done, or we can use the surveys the port has done and you can go around and talk to anybody you want and do all the drawings and basically make a story and a profile and give that to us. I said, 'OK, as long as you don't edit me.' They said, 'Deal.' So I'm like, 'Wow, that is actually unusual.'

That became Meanwhile, Pier 70 in Its Own Words. Fast-forward a couple years, after she'd been evicted — along with many others — from a studio space above ARCH Art Supplies (when it was in Potrero Hill). A plea for help on Facebook caught the attention of a woman from Forest City who mentioned that there was one opening in a just-developed Pier 70 artists' space. The opportunity gave MacNaughton a minor crisis.

“All this stuff comes up: 'I can't take up this much space.' 'I don't deserve this.' 'What am I going to do with all this?' It was a big financial leap to make, but it was either between this or a 200-square-foot space that was all carpet and stuff, basically a little office. I had to make a decision: Go that way, which would have been safe and good and I knew I could do it, or do I want to make a leap? I leapt.”

She painted a platform in the center of the room a mint shade, and moved her drafting tables in. While there are no cobwebby corners or dead spaces, MacNaughton is eager to maximize her studio's potential.

“If people want to come in and share a work in progress, it's a really great space for it, right?” Then the idea dawns on her to have me write this article (or anything else) right there in the studio.

I reflexively demur, thinking about celebrities I've spoken to over the phone who ask for a restaurant recommendation and coyly dangle the possibility of meeting up; it's a calculated maneuver designed to get journalists to swoon and maybe ignore the celeb's awkward pauses. Then I realize that a woman who'd greeted me with tea and “How did you find me, and how have we not met before?” isn't pulling my leg.

In the end, I write this article much as I do any other, at home and at my desk, with a burgeoning flush of self-hatred as I come up hard against my deadline.

In our final email exchange, a day before SF Weekly went to press, Wendy MacNaughton closes with a reminder, in all caps: PROCRASTINATION IS PART OF THE CREATIVE PROCESS.


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