In the Spotlight: James McMullan, Artist/Illustrator/Writer Extraordinaire (Interview)
October 23, 2014
I have several examples of James McMullan’s art in my home, although none of it hangs on my walls. In my CD collection, you’ll find the New Broadway Cast Recording of the 1987 revival of Anything Goes — with Jim’s wonderful Lincoln Center poster as the cover art. On my bookshelves, you’ll find I’m Mighty, with illustrations by Jim and text by his wife (and my friend) Kate. You’ll also find Julie Andrews’ Collection of Poems, Songs and Lullabies, with beautiful watercolors by Jim. And of course, there’s his latest book, Leaving China, which I reviewed last week. Such a rich variety of artistic styles! Such a rich talent this man has!
It is both an honor and a delight to feature Jim himself in an interview here on By Word of Beth today. Thank you so much, Jim — for agreeing to the interview so readily, and for providing such erudite and inspiring answers to my questions.
Now — on to the interview!
Beth: Jim, many of my readers will be familiar with your illustrations from the collaborative picture books you have done with Kate – I Stink, I’m Mighty, I’m Brave, etc. They are likely less familiar with the wide-ranging work you have done in other areas of art and illustration. By way of introduction, could you briefly tell us some of the many facets of your work as an artist?
Jim: Since the 1960’s and into the late ‘90s I was illustrating for all the major magazines. Some readers of New York Magazine may remember a series of paintings I did of a disco club in Brooklyn that became the visual inspiration for the movie Saturday Night Fever. In 1986 I became the Principal Poster Artist for Lincoln Center Theater and have done 80 posters so far for that institution, including Anything Goes, Six Degrees of Separation, South Pacific and, currently, The King and I.
Beth: As you know, I have read (and re-read) your wonderful illustrated autobiographical account of your childhood, Leaving China. The entire book moved and inspired me. I could talk with you about it for hours (but will try to restrain myself)! One part that particularly stood out for me was when you wrote of yourself as a young boy “gradually finding his strength in art and a way to be in the world that was not his father’s or his mother’s idea of a man’s life.” Could you talk about how art did this – how it allowed you to find your own place in the world?
Jim: Childhood for a boy is often a series of events that test physical prowess and aggression. As I failed many of these tests I began to realize that my motor skills were not in my large muscles but in my hands: I could make accurate, delicate marks with a pencil. I also began to realize that my power lay not in confrontation but in observing from the sidelines. Much later, when I began to draw from the figure, I realized how much I had stored in my memory of how the human body moves and what emotional information is carried in that movement. As a kid this ability to “copy the world” gave me an artist role to play among my cohorts. Later in life this drawing skill, (which somehow contained emotional perceptiveness) made it possible for me to succeed as an illustrator, particularly of literary or theatrical material.
Beth: This speaks to me so vividly of the way the arts empower us as individuals, as well as in society. The theme of my blog this year is “Empowerment through the arts and through words.” I believe this has proven itself true in your life. Could you enlarge on this thought focusing on how you have continued to be empowered by art throughout your life?
Jim: I’ve made a living doing something I love so that’s a kind of empowerment, But there is something more subtly empowering about art in the way I experience it – when I am drawing from a model or when I break through my struggles with a painting to a confident flow I am more truly in the moment than at any other time in my life.
Also, in a complicated way, struggling with art is a struggle for some kind of truth or authenticity and I think that is what the arts gives to the culture at large- questions about humanhood that wouldn’t be raised in any other way.
Beth: Beyond the story told in Leaving China, how did you get your start as a professional artist?
Jim: An editor at E.P. Dutton, Cyril Nelson, gave me a book jacket to design, and then another and another. It was a lucky and fortuitous meeting with someone who was willing to take a chance on a kid just out of art school and give me a real vote of confidence in my talent.
Beth: The variety of styles and forums for your work is astonishing. What led you to delve into so many different areas?
Jim: I approach my work looking for the emotional nugget or situation that I relate to in the story or the play and then respond with whatever style within my repertoire seems right. This means that my work isn’t strongly identified by one highly developed style. This is partly due to the element of risk that I need in my work to keep myself involved – often mistakes happen that I’m willing to live with if the overall effect has spontaneity. Different assignments strike me differently.
I have no answer as to why I’ve done work in so many areas, perhaps too many.
Beth: How do you see the arts as potential for empowering others, both children and adults? I’m thinking both of the visual arts, which you are so deeply involved in, but also the performing arts, knowing you have a deep connection with theatres, particularly with art for theatre.
Jim: Children can use the arts to express themselves in ways that are not possible otherwise, and some children will have the natural reflexes and complexity of mind to make a life in art. There are so many people who harbor a need to express themselves through some kind of art and there should be many avenues within the civil culture to release that impulse. Art education, in the best sense, should be learning a unique kind of intelligence, not easy, but entirely accessible.
Beth: I’d like to bring Kate into the conversation, if I may. What has it been like to live with an artist over the years? Has it changed the way you look at things at all? Does Jim’s art have a carry-over effect in empowering you?
Kate: Living with Jim and collaborating with him on our picture books has definitely has made me a more visual person. When we lived in New York City, Jim’s studio was across Lexington Avenue from our apartment, and I’d go over there occasionally to see what he was working on, but since we’ve been living in Sag Harbor, where his studio is just a few feet from my office, I see his work many times a day, which is great. Sometimes Jim will ask my opinion about a sketch or a finish he’s been working on. I feel it’s a huge responsibility to put my two cents in, but over the years I’ve become more sure in my responses. It’s a great privilege, working with Jim. We have a good time making our vehicle books.
Beth: What is next for Jim McMullan?
Jim: Leaving China was such an intense and unique kind of experience for me that the search for a subject to move on to has been difficult, but I am circling two possible ideas that I hope will work out. In the meantime I am working on posters for Lincoln Center Theater. Kate and I are working on a non-vehicle book.
Beth: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Jim: I think I’ve wrung out my brain.
Thank you again for this interview, Jim, and for “wringing out your brain” on our behalf. I want to wish you, Jim and Kate, the very best in your continuing work. Long life and health to you both!
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Rather than just pointing you to Jim’s website, and saying in effect, “Go to it, kid!” I’d like to share with you specific parts of that website (but do explore the rest, as well!)
An op-ed series Jim did for The New York Times on the basics of drawing, called Line by Line.
The Triton Gallery, where Jim’s prints and books may be purchased.