Hanging Out With Strangers: Wendy MacNaughton Is S.F.'s Cultural Anthropologist

Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in Its Own Words by Wendy MacNaughton features whimsical drawings of different parts of the city alongside quotes from S.F. citizens describing each area. The detailed illustrations are paired with a firsthand perspective on things many S.F. residents probably don't think about: the culture of Chinatown, the daily life of a farmers market vendor, and what it's like to live at Sixth and Mission. We spoke with MacNaughton to find out where she got the idea for such a unique book.

SF Weekly: When did you begin sketching?

Wendy MacNaughton: I've been drawing for as long as I can remember, except I stopped for like 10 years. When you go to art school as an undergrad, you stop actually making drawing and paintings and start making really, really bad conceptual art, and that's what I did.

What was your initial inspiration to sketch neighborhoods of San Francisco and get quotes from its residents?

MacNaughton: I started sketching again when I was working in downtown San Francisco but not living there yet, and I would sketch people I observed on my BART commute and write stuff about what I thought they were thinking. I was writing for The Rumpus at the time, and the editor, Paul Madonna, suggested I write a longer narrative. That was a big shift for me, a new way of thinking about things, and it evolved into what I do now.

I'm a curious person naturally, and I enjoy hanging out with strangers. Everybody is an opportunity for a conversation. I chose to use the citizens' own words because in addition to my training in art, I also got my degree in social work, and one of the most important things in social work is letting people speak for themselves. Social work is about giving people their own voice, people who might not normally have the spotlight. I didn't want to put words in anyone's mouths. I didn't want to speak for anyone else.

How long have you lived in San Francisco?

I was born in San Francisco and lived here for a couple years before my family moved to Marin County, which is where I grew up. As soon as it was possible for my friends and I to sneak back to the city, we would come here all the time. I moved away from the Bay and back a few times. I've now been living in San Francisco for four or five years, and I'm not going anywhere. Because I grew up in Bay Area, when I was 19, I left and I was like, “I am never coming back here again!” It's funny, here I am almost 20 years later, and not only am I back living here, but I wrote a book about the city.

How does the people-watching in Marin County compare with the people-watching in San Francisco?

There's some great people-watching in Marin County, but there's more diverse people watching in San Francisco. There's much more racial and economic diversity here. There are more ways of being and of living in San Francisco.

What other projects are you working on?

I'm actually working on two books with local artists. The first one is called Pen and Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them with Isaac Fitzgerald. It started out as a Tumblr page where people submit pictures of their tattoos and the story behind it, and I'll draw the tattoos and write down the stories. The book is coming out in October.

The other one is Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: The Four Elements of Good Cooking with Samin Nosrat, who's an awesome chef and teacher and person. That one will come out sometime in 2015. Meanwhile, I draw stuff for The New York Times and commercial clients.

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