A Day with Wendy MacNaughton: Studio Visit x ChatJuxtapoz // Wednesday, 06 Oct 2010
The installation possessed a sort of nuanced understanding of a diverse and at times, complex city. The drawings covered the space’s upper walls and alluded to hidden secrets and funny comments, which could only have been hatched in a mind keenly observant of her home city and surroundings. It served as an ideal introduction to Wendy’s work because if there is one word that comes to mind after looking at Wendy’s art, it is observant (well, along with compassionate, intelligent, witty, and original).
A few weeks after our introduction, I tagged along with Wendy on a project she was doing for a literary community based in SF called The Rumpus. The idea was born out of a desire to explore and showcase the many sub-populations the Bay Area boasts. I met her on the busy corner of 6th and Market Streets, which as any local knows, is a notoriously rough area. Wendy was already there, sitting next to her project.
The project was a set of chess tables open to anyone that wanted to play chess; 75 cents for a half hour or a dollar fifty for a whole hour. The tables attracted a wide range of patrons, from regulars who had been playing for decades to visitors just passing by. Wendy was towards the end of a month-long journey observing, sketching, and getting to know these chess players. By then, she was familiar with most of them and had developed a comfortable rapport. I sat by Marvin, an elderly man who told us he’d been playing chess for 40 years. Wendy chatted with him as she sketched, masterfully commanding a sort of artistic and communicative balancing act. Perpetually sketching and engaging moving subjects is no easy task, but it allowed the chess players to comfortably tell their story, from which the artist also gleaned quotes to attach within each of their portraits.
Chalkboard paint comes in handy for impromptu wall-doodling
Wendy and her girlfriend Caroline refurbished an airplane side into a living room wall sculpture (which also lights up!)
Backyard fire pit
Wendy's art lines a wall leading upstairs
Wendy was born and raised in Marin, a small city just over the Golden Gate Bridge, North of SF. She attended Art Center in Pasadena, studying both art and advertising. “I got into it to make people think,” the artist explains from her studio. We’ve left the chess players, hopped on BART and made our way to her stunning home studio. Wendy just quit her formal day job a mere three months ago and the transition has been a welcome change of pace and focus.
Good advice. “Some of my work is kind of neurotic,” the artist jokes. “Like when you empty the entire contents of a ballpoint pen into a drawing one night.”
A peek inside the studio space...
“Advertising is the most powerful art form today – the shallowest, but powerful. It drives opinion and motivation.” Upon graduation, the artist landed a prestigious job at one of SF’s lead advertising agencies, where she hoped to write copy for clever advertising campaigns. This was in 1999 at the height of the Bay Area dot-com boom and the experience didn’t go exactly as she’d envisioned (think Mad Men style drinking, not enriching collaborative concept sessions).
Early in her experience there, Wendy was gifted a rare opportunity that would forever alter her life. A friend was working as an independent election observer in Rwanda, and he suggested Wendy to USAID (United States Aid for International Development) as someone who could create and illustrate the national campaign to promote the country's first democratic elections. She jumped at the opportunity. She ended up spending four months in Rwanda, an experience that resulted in her being offered a full-time job position, which she declined. “I wasn’t ready to live alone in Rwanda. It’s a hard place to live and I’d just graduated from college.”
Wendy returned to her advertising job and vividly recalls re-entering the work environment there. “I sat down at my desk and there was a project for some kind of pre-packaged chicken with herbs with a note like, ‘Can you make this funny?’ I’d just been working with genocide survivors in Rwanda! I sold all my belongings and drove down to LA and worked in non-profits.”
With her first major stint in advertising now behind her, Wendy spent the next few years immersed in clinical psychology, working with torture victims, and those seeking asylum. During this time, Wendy virtually stopped drawing and painting. “I didn’t want to make anything; the world has too much stuff already.” She again embraced both art forms after graduating from Columbia in 2005 where she received her Masters in International Social Welfare.
Throughout the past 5 years, she has expanded her personal and freelance portfolios while continuing to work in the non-profit sector. She now exclusively works freelance projects, creating her signature loose sketches accented by watercolor paints for everyone from Asics Shoes to Time Out New York, and many, many more. “If I don’t draw or paint for some amount of time everyday, I go a little bit crazy,” she confesses. “It’s like exercise or meditation.”
The Dalai Lama definitely is a Nice Guy
An ongoing project mapping out all the people Wendy knows
Of her latest works from the chess player series which now litter her studio walls, she explains, “This isn’t about what they look like. It’s not a portrait of them, but of a moment. I can’t draw if it’s not in front of me.” She once wanted to draw a pack of cigarettes that had been lying next to a subject, but she had already left the location. “Caroline [Wendy’s girlfriend and author Caroline Paul] was like, ‘lets go out and buy a pack,’ but I knew I had to return to the spot and draw them there on the spot.”
“I feel really lucky, with my advertising, social work, and art background. I feel so lucky because they’re all so self-referential. […] Those Venn diagrams are totally inspired by ‘systems thinking’ in social work. The empathetic approach to my portraits? Totally social work ethos. The way I draw people in public without pissing them off? I owe that to social work too; being chatty and interested in people and social work. Plus, I know I would not be half as comfortable with communication without that training.
“My work is all about breaking down assumptions. It’s great to share people’s lives in their own words.”
Wendy uses pen to sketch her subjects on the spot (“To come home and draw them; it would be ingenuine”) and then colors them with watercolor.
A portion of a poster Wendy designed for a Jeff Tweedy benefit concert this June in Chicago
Previous and in-progress pieces line one wall...
In-progress chess player series
Each player is accompanied by various quotes Wendy later incorporated into the portrait
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Story and photos by Katie Zuppann