Wendy MacNaughton’s online art class has evolved into a global community.
If your work and passion are observing people and drawing their stories, what do you do when a global pandemic forces us all inside?
This is the question that faced artist Wendy MacNaughton as her hometown of San Francisco — and largely, everywhere else — effectively shut down under new quarantine guidelines designed to slow the spread of coronavirus, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world.
MacNaughton’s specialty is drawn journalism — chronicling the realities and oddities of human life and presenting them back to us in beautiful, and sometimes painful, detail. Her award-winning work includes covering the court in Guantánamo Bay for the New York Times, illustrating the national campaign for the first democratic elections in Rwanda, and showing the complexities and simplicities of life in her many books (including Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in Its Own Words, and Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them), and her backpage column in the California Sunday Magazine. She calls her work “drawn journalism” or “illustrated documentary,” offering so much more than portraiture. Her art lays bare the very humanity of her subjects, serving up a lesson on tolerance for the rest of us. This is her social work background at play. MacNaughton, trained in art school, then social work, then advertising and global nonprofit work, has a gift for finding the people and the causes that deserve a spotlight. Her pen and watercolors reveal stories such as the symbiotic relationship between the homeless population and the Bay Area’s libraries, the geishas of Kyoto, Japan, and Venn diagrams of our innermost thoughts. A global crisis that is fundamentally changing how we live is a perfect field assignment for MacNaughton. But we all must stay inside, at least for now.
“The kind of work I do requires me to spend a ton of time out and about, drawing the people, places and things around us, and interviewing people,” says MacNaughton, who lives in Portrero Hill with her partner and frequent collaborator, the writer Caroline Paul, and their pets. “As soon as the stay-at-home orders happened, that was it. My work stopped for the foreseeable future.”
That is, until an unlikely idea was presented to her. Wondering out loud to friends and family about how to be of service during this time, MacNaughton’s mother had a thought: Teach an online art class for kids.
“I’ve never taught a drawing class in my life, especially not one to kids,” MacNaughton says. “But we’re all stepping up in ways that we can, using our skills to help out. I do have a weird skill-set — I’m an only child who spent a lot of time talking to imaginary people in the room, I am kind of a ham, and I draw. Hopefully, if I’m doing my job right, it’s not just about learning to draw, but learning to get over fears and self-judgment and learning to look at the world in a different way, and creating a space where kids feel seen and heard and connected with people outside of their world.”
Now in its third month, MacNaughton’s #DrawTogether lessons reach thousands of students around the world who tune in to her Instagram Live every weekday at 10 a.m. Pacific from countries like Turkey, India, South Africa, Venezuela, and all across the U.S. Each class is then archived on YouTube. “It was going to be a five-minute thing for five days, and I think on day 3 we didn’t know what the hell was going on,” says MacNaughton, who records each class from her home, with Paul acting as the camerawoman. “We had so many different people from all over the world. And we’re hearing from our community that parents were scheduling their days around it, and kids were looking forward to doing it the next day. As soon as we heard that, we knew we had to keep going.”
As any quarantined parent can tell you, teaching children is about the hardest work that there is, and not something most of us take up willingly. “I know how stressed parents must be, and how scared some kids might feel. If we’re able, then it’s our responsibility to step up where others can’t,” MacNaughton says. “This feels like the least I can do. And it’s the best thing I can do. I love it so much.”
When she’s drawing, MacNaughton’s true personality is free to come out, and it’s one that is built for an audience who can appreciate a silly face, a corny joke, or the world of make-believe. She’ll show up in her videos wearing masks, helmets, funny outfits, and always balancing a pencil above her lip like a mustache. “I am such a dork,” she says with a full-throated laugh. “Sometimes I’ll think, what am I doing? This is not consistent with my drawn journalist brand. I had a column in the New York Times! But within one breath I realize, ‘Oh, wait a second, this is exactly right. This is doing the same thing, just going about it in a different way.’ My drawn journalism is talking to opinion makers to help us all think about things in a new way. Teaching a class with these kids is even more exciting. Because if we can get them to learn to look, listen and feel the joy of what it’s like to connect with the world around them through drawing, I think that is a soul transformation. It doesn’t change your mind, it changes your soul.”
MacNaughton is working on turning #DrawTogether into a movement, having raised more than $30,000 through a GoFundMe campaign to send art supplies to children in need in the Bay Area and the outer boroughs of New York City, where the coronavirus has hit communities hardest. Local businesses such as ARCH Art Supplies have stepped up to fulfill orders. “Art supplies are like emergency relief services for kids right now,” she says. “Drawing is the number one way for kids to process their feelings and emotions.”
The kits cost $20 each and include drawing paper, pencils, eraser, sharpener, crayons, watercolor paints and activity worksheets, translated into English, Spanish and Chinese. “If somebody gives $1,000, that’s 50 kids whose lives are changed. This is an investment in the long-term emotional health of our kids.”
MacNaughton isn’t sure what the future holds — should she go back to big projects or keep this class going? — but she’s enjoying the creative outlet and the connection. “We’re all digging into our creative wells right now, finding the best ways we can be of service. When I am doing this class and I am looking at that red [camera] dot, I just open my heart and dive into the lesson. If I make a mistake I apologize, and then hopefully that gives the kids permission todo the same.”