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Wendy MacNaughton’s Notes to Self

The Art of Listening

ISSUE:  Spring 2019

There is a bootmaker, a man who plies his trade in a roadside shack on the way to Spring City, Utah. You can find him by a hand-painted sign. He isn’t expecting any walk-ins, really, but if you knock and he doesn’t answer, and you have the inclination to walk in anyway, you’ll likely find him at his bench stitching a sole. And though this bootmaker wasn’t your original destination, he’s your destination now, because the small talk that follows quickly unspools into hours of getting to know—and ultimately retell—the story of a man and his trade and how both fit into the fabric of the American economy. And while it might be a peculiar way to spend an afternoon, for artist Wendy MacNaughton—her sketchpad, pens, and iPhone in tow—it’s how she gets the job done.

Under the title of Meanwhile, MacNaughton has been composing journalistic portraits like that of bootmaker Don Walker for nearly a decade now—first for the Rumpus, then for her book Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in Its Own Words. In 2016 Meanwhile became a regular feature on the back page of California Sunday Magazine,and late last year she joined the New York Times Sunday Business Section to contribute a new version of the project as a weekly column that, according to editor Nick Summers, “explores the people, places and things we usually overlook.”

“Studs Terkel is a big influence,” MacNaughton says. “And Working is, for me, a bible. So the idea of exploring work in that way—but visually, within the business section of a newspaper  read by people who are influencing our economy and policy—is very exciting.”

Photographs by Erica Deeman

Enlisting an illustrator to expand a paper’s business coverage might seem unnatural at first. But the execution has the effect of liberating the analogue form: The page above the fold becomes a canvas where brief flights of lettering frame portraits, still lifes, diagrams, and minutiae. Journalism becomes immersive in unexpected ways, with the loose symmetry of a scrapbook.

MacNaughton is a fan of randomness and patience. The way that produces the best work, she says, is to just “go where strangers tell me to go.” Walker, for instance, was a tip she got while chatting with someone while waiting in line for a sandwich. Walker, in turn, suggested the next stop. “The key is to be open to whatever people tell me to do. It’s never usually exactly what they tell me to do, but that’s how I end up in a situation to meet the next subject. There’s also a tugging feeling I get in my gut that says, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ That’s honestly the feeling: that I don’t want to stop and talk to someone because I can sense it will take me down a big rabbit hole, and I don’t know what I’m going to find. But if I ignore that feeling, I end up hitting a wall. If I go after it, the universe unfolds.”

Photographs by Erica Deeman

There are, of course, challenges to getting it done. Not every lead pans out; not every stranger is a good subject. But what is critical to doing it right is, as any reporter knows, the art of listening, a skill MacNaughton honed as part of her master’s degree in social work.

Photographs by Erica Deeman

Drawing, talking, listening: To be present as both a journalist and illustrator seems like it might lead to some restless conversations. The trick is patience. “There are pauses. People look away for a second,” she says. “There are natural moments when you can glance around and take in the room. But also, I end up spending a lot of time with people, and I often end up sitting with them in silence—me drawing, them continuing on with whatever they do.”

There is, too, something in the two skills that reinforce each other. “For instance,” she says, “I grab onto a visual edge, compositionally. I’ll see an angle or the way somebody is positioned near a table. Whatever it is, there’s always something visual that I can hook onto and then draw out from there. That hook helps ground me visually, and then I start noticing details. The premise of everything—whether it’s the people, the things that I find interesting about them, whatever’s there—is that if I’m not literally framing it, if I’m not slowing down and looking at it by drawing it, then I’ll miss things. If I slow down and really look closely through drawing and listen deeply, I hear and see so much more.”

Remarkably enough, since beginning this series in 2010, MacNaughton says that her successful subjects far outnumber the duds. That could be luck, or it could be the angle of approach.

Photographs by Erica Deeman

“I’d argue that everybody is interesting,” she says, “and I’m good at drawing out what is interesting in everyone. Give me anything and I’ll find you a story. There’s a story behind everything. It’s just a matter of having the right perspective and being open to it, being curious and being interested in finding metaphors. Everybody has a story. Everybody wants to share it—well, most everybody wants to share their story. So rather than just being luck, I feel like when we’re truly open and when we’re open to looking and listening, the universe delivers. It does. You’re talking to an atheist, but I really believe that.”

— Paul Reyes


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