Wendy MacNaughton

Essentially, a lot of my work is about telling other people’s stories. Anything is fair game, but I’m mostly interested in telling intimate and potentially overlooked stories— narratives that the world might otherwise not hear.

When we visited Wendy at her home in Potrero Hill she was feeling under the weather and in order to safeguard us from her germs she refrained from hugging us. Though we’d never met before it was clear that Wendy usually greets strangers who come to her house in this way— not with a handshake, but with a hug. That gesture alone says a lot. Wendy’s home, which she shares with her partner Caroline Paul, is put together immaculately, as if each room was torn from a page of a glossy magazine. Even her studio, with its huge windows and view of the back garden, has a decidedly decorated feel to it. Wendy’s illustrative work, however, is less concerned with expressing perfection— instead, her drawings and words have a rough-hewn sensibility and often convey a vulnerability and humor that is stark and unflinching. Mirroring the messy realities of daily life and the flawed characters that inhabit it, there is an element of “untidiness” to her illustrations. Wendy is an obsessive observer of people: a note taker, a sketch maker, an eavesdropper, a question asker. She spends hours and hours watching and interacting with her subjects, gleaning meaningful details and then putting them together to create a vignette-like narrative. Though some of her work can be charmingly lighthearted and even a bit goofy, she isn’t afraid to touch on heavier themes with candor; beauty is not always present, her words can be dark-tinged and flagrant, and there’s an acceptance of the incomprehensible. Pinned on Wendy’s wall was a snapshot of a serene lakeside scene— there’s a table at the edge of the lake, a glorious vista, and an expanse of water. She told us it was taken when she was in Rwanda and that she had eaten breakfast in that exact spot, which years before had been the site of bloodshed during the genocide of 1994. She said she keeps it on her wall to remind her that there are always (at least) two stories to tell. Like I said, she’s not afraid to get real.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
Paper, pen, watercolor. That’s pretty much it. Sometimes I make little objects, but mostly I draw with pen and paint on paper. Essentially, a lot of my work is about telling other people’s stories. Anything is fair game, but I’m mostly interested in telling intimate and potentially overlooked stories— narratives that the world might otherwise not hear and that hopefully bring a different perspective to the viewer/reader. I do the best I can to tell a “true” narrative, but obviously the content is filtered through me and therefore is a lot about how I see the world and people.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
This is my day job! I’ve been drawing full-time for close to two years now, but it was certainly an unforeseen journey getting to this point. I had gone to graduate school at Columbia University for social work and quickly realized it wasn’t right for me because I got too involved and attached. After school I moved back to San Francisco and ended up working at an advertising agency that only dealt with non-profits. It was during this time that I returned to drawing— my daily commute on BART became a time dedicated to my drawing practice. I drew the people I saw on my commute, often writing little passages to accompany the drawings. I started posting work on a blog to create accountability for myself and share the work with others. And, things just kind of took off from there.

Can you recall the first time you saw a work of art that had impact on you?
Jasper Johns. I had just begun to read and my grandmother would take me to museums all the time and I remember locking onto one of his yellow/red/blue paintings – I just sat there getting lost in it – my grandmother had to drag me away. She was not a huge Johns fan.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
Yes! A new project I’m doing with Isaac Fitzgerald (Managing Editor of The Rumpus) called “Pen & Ink.” We’re collecting and sharing tattoos and the personal stories behind them (he edits, I draw). The response has been overwhelming and we’re really excited about it. It’s like a big collaboration with everyone who has a tattoo and a story. — And! I have three books coming out in the next year or two. One I did in collaboration with my partner, the author Caroline Paul called Lost Cat, A True Story of Love, Desperation and GPS Technology. Bloomsbury is publishing it. Another is a scratch-n-sniff wine book with the amazing Master Sommelier Richard Betts, and the incredibly talented Art Director Crystal English. It brings approachability to the world of wine. Lastly, Chronicle Books is publishing an anthology of my illustrated documentaries about San Francisco. I’m thrilled about it all.

When you are in need of inspiration are there particular things you read, listen to or look at to fuel your work?
I’ll thumb through some Roz Chast or David Shrigley to turn my brain around, face something more interesting — I’ll go through old magazines or new books – or go to a coffee shop and watch people in line, or I’ll look at Brain Pickings on the Internet, or I’ll just open and close the refrigerator door, play with the cats, and stare at blank paper till I can’t anymore, and force inspiration to hit.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
Before having a studio in my home, my home always was my studio. It’s a place or refuge…of concentration and procrastination and inspiration and hard work and late nights…. I love my studio, but I’m in the process of looking for a new studio outside our home. I’m not the most disciplined person and I need boundaries in order to stop working. When you love what you do, your work has the potential to infinitely expand into your time. Because my studio is in my home the work just never seems to end, it’s hard for me to contain it; it’s hard for me to stop. I want to try to create more structure and I think having a studio outside of the house will help. Fingers crossed on that one.

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
Oh sure. I think illustration is at an interesting place right now, especially in the context of the Internet— storytelling with words and pictures; being independent from others’ text, illustrating the world instead of others’ work. I would never compare myself to these great folks, but there are some people I really really admire who are doing this: Christoph Neiman and Maira Kalman come to mind. They are also big heroes of mine, and a huge influence, if you couldn’t tell already.

How do you navigate the art world?
I don’t. It’s not my world. I like to talk to people in it, and look at it, and walk around in it, but I don’t want to live there.

My undergraduate degree was in Fine Art and Advertising, and for a long time I was trying really hard to make what I thought was “good” art— which meant the opposite of what I actually loved to do. During my time in school I was contemptuous of illustration; I thought it was the lowliest form of art making. But once I came back to drawing I recognized that this is the work I want to make, it makes the most sense to me and I believe in it, and I’ve kind of reclaimed the term— it means something very different to me now than it did back then.

These days I’m fortunate in that I mostly get approached for commissioned work, though I will certainly pitch ideas if I’m interested in a particular project. Other opportunities like the upcoming books and exhibits happened organically. With regards to commercial work, I have no problem being a gun for hire. I appreciate that there is a definite goal, deadlines and an end in sight. Left to my own devices, my work just goes on and on and on…

What risks have you taken in your work, and what has been at stake?
I dropped the theory and the formalist stuff (at least what didn’t serve me) and now I just do what I do in the best way I can, coming out of my own experience, my own perspective. So there is always the risk of taking criticism personally. Ironically, I care 100 times less what people think about my work now than I did when I was making work that was totally impersonal. More than that though, I feel a lot of responsibility when I’m making work that talks about people’s lives— that is the biggest risk for me. I really want to get it right and honor their stories and experience.

A commonly held conception is that artists often make their best work during periods of personal turmoil, have you found this to be true?
I’ve been a dramatic wreck most of my life, so not sure I have anything to compare it to. But I have noticed the only thing worse for making art than a real, deep depression is total happiness.

Do you have a motto?
You mean today’s?

What has been your biggest disappointment and greatest joy thus far in life?
The biggest disappointments have turned out to be the biggest blessings. If I had gotten that scholarship to work overseas I would never have moved back to SF, if I had gotten that job I wanted I would never have started drawing again… etc.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
Installation at the Ace Hotel NY runs through June 10th.
Basecamp Hotel in South Lake Tahoe (The hotel permanently features Wendy’s artwork throughout rooms and lobby). Opens June 20th.
Show at The Curiosity Shoppe, SF. Opens June 21st.
Outdoor installation at A Temporary Offering, SF. Opens June 21st.
Ongoing installation at Intersection for the Arts
Group show at Ampersand International Arts, SF. Opens in September.

To see more of Wendy’s work:
Commercial Agent:
Literary agent:

Wendy’s work is currently available at 20×200, a great online source for seriously affordable, limited edition, artwork. Click the big X below to see.Curious about some of the work on the wall behind Wendy’s drawing table? Here’s a list of those artists. Each of their work is currently available on 20×200 as well.
Martha Rich
Mike Monteiro
Jason Polan
Paula Scher


    Dear Wendy, not knowing if one really reads these things or if it matters, I still like the idea of putting it out there. i just saw Wendy Macnaughton on PBS do Brief but Spectaular. And you are, she is Spectacular, her illustrations of words in drawings, in pictures. Wendy you are a delight and thriliing, wishing you all the Best. Clifford S. of Occidental, Ca.