Ink on Paper

Michelle Konstantinovsky

Paul Madonna never used to call himself an artist—but in times like these, substance and style mean everything

For most longtime San Franciscans, the prospect of eviction might understandably prompt debilitating fear or anger. For Madonna, it was just another source of inspiration.

In 2015, when the creator of the San Francisco Chronicle’s series All Over Coffee was forced out of his Mission home of more than a decade, he wove the experience into his work. The 12-year feature eventually culminated in the phrase “on to the next dream,” which served as the title for Madonna’s subsequent illustrated novelization of the eviction.

This kind of creative alchemization is integral to Madonna’s style and sustained success: If everything was copy to Nora Ephron, everything is art to Madonna.

“It’s about process,” he says, describing his distinctive approach. “I’m interested in having an idea, expressing it, seeing where it goes, developing it, and allowing the result to be part of the process, as opposed to solving a particular problem.”

The Potrero Avenue studio that has served as Madonna’s workspace since February is itself a succinct summary of the artist’s experience-driven method: He custom-built all the furniture by hand, allowing the space itself to breathe life into his pieces. “I rejected the word ‘artist’ for many years,” he says. “I thought it was pretentious. But then I realized if you strip away the romanticism, it means going into the studio every day and allowing things to happen.”

While he may not always have labeled himself as such, Madonna has been an artist most of his life. Growing up in Pennsylvania, he spent his childhood poring over newspaper comics, an early fascination that evolved into a passion for painting and writing. While earning his fine arts degree at Carnegie Mellon University, he landed a gig as MAD magazine’s first-ever art intern—an opportunity he inadvertently invented.

“It was the early ’90s, so you weren’t emailing people,” he recalls. “I called them, and they sent me a sheet of paper with the instruction ‘Take one idea and execute it from three points of view.’” Madonna responded with an illustration depicting the awkwardness of public bathroom usage from varying perspectives. “They called and told me no one had ever sent in drawings before! They considered MAD an editorial magazine and said, ‘We loved what you sent us. It came down to you and one other person—and we gave it to the other person. But we’re creating an art internship and you’ll be the first person to ever do it.’”

Madonna credits his time at MAD for imparting strategic wisdom he implements in his work to this day. “They taught me key elements I use now in storytelling,” he says. “I was working with artists and writers and art directors and I loved every step.”

After MAD, Madonna sought to apply those new skills out West, and the San Francisco art scene offered an appealing—and warmer—landscape. “I knew I needed to be in a major city—and I was so sick of winter,” he says, laughing. While the cultural and economic shifts since his 1994 arrival have resulted in the exact housing crises Madonna knows all too well, his view of the city remains philosophical. “So many of us transplants come here and the moment we metaphorically step off the bus, we create this snapshot of the city and its culture,” he says. “And that becomes the fixed point in our memory that we always judge against. But that fixed point is a fallacy. People who came here five or 10 years before that have a different vision of the same place. The city is always changing.”

Madonna is reflecting on those changes in the current projects he’s juggling at his studio and during frequent travels abroad. Following up on the release of last year’s illustrated novel Close Enough for the Angels, Madonna is at work on a true-crime historical novel set in San Francisco that chronicles a late-1800s art heist, as well as a series of drawings for the Gazette that captures some of SF’s (primarily female) unsung heroes. In both cases, Madonna is stepping into unfamiliar territory, and that plays perfectly into his ever-evolving process.

“I allow my work to change, and that’s what each project represents—I did that body of ideas, now I’m moving onto another body of ideas,” he says. “It’s all about pairing stories and images and exploring various combinations to see what works for people. I’m not looking for that ‘perfect’ combination; each variation has its own effect. I doubt I’ll ever do All Over Coffee again in the way I did, because that series feels done. But I’ll continue to tell stories, draw, and combine the two. It’s about continually moving on.”

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