by Amanda Wyatt
Jim McMullan, a Sag Harbor resident famed for designing posters for Lincoln Center, is bringing the glamour and drama of the stage to the unlikeliest, and smallest, of mediums — the stamp.
On July 28, the United States Post Office released four new stamps inspired by McMullan for their “Innovative Choreographers” collection, which celebrates dance greats Isadora Duncan, José Limón, Katherine Dunham and Bob Fosse. Based on McMullan’s sketches, the stamps portray each choreographer in the straightforward, yet lively and theatrical style for which the designer is known.
“When I was thinking about the stamp, I thought it should have a commemorative simplicity,” McMullan said. “There should be the sense that you get to the information very, very fast.
“Even though the figures in the stamps are moving in a way that isn’t typical for a stamp, I was still trying to present them in a way that made it seem like this was the iconic view of that choreographer,” he explained.
Unlike most commemorative stamps, which show a head-and-shoulders portrait of the individual, McMullan’s work captures each choreographer in the middle of a dance. This was somewhat of a challenge, since he was used to working on a larger scale.
“Things that I can do in terms of complexity or subtlety [on a poster], I couldn’t do on a stamp,” he explained. “Already, I was pushing the limit by doing full figures on the stamps.”
McMullan, who bought his Sag Harbor home in the 1970s, was born in Tsingtao, North China. He moved to New York as a young man, where he began his career as an illustrator. In 1976, he designed his first Broadway poster, which eventually led to work at Lincoln Center Theater.
McMullan’s work eventually caught the attention of Ethel Kessler, an art director at the Post Office. Because “my theater posters often involve movement or gesture, I think that’s why they thought it would be a match,” McMullan said.
While researching the choreographers, McMullan studied photos, as well as any videos that were available. For the stamp of Katharine Dunham, one of the iconic African American choreographers of the 20th century, McMullan had only about five photos to work from. He also read biographical material on Dunham, who integrated African and Caribbean influences into her choreography.
He admitted that he struggled a bit with the Bob Fosse stamp, since, McMullan said, “he wasn’t a dancing choreographer as he was a choreographer who told other dancers what to do.” But since Fosse was also an actor, director and screenwriter, McMullan was able to look to the movies for inspiration.
McMullan had a much easier time designing the stamp of Isadora Duncan, who is often credited as the creator of modern dance.
“There were lots of photographs of her dancing with Greek columns,” he said.
“With Isadora, she was such a legend that I already had an idea in my mind of this ethereal, Greco-esque kind of movement that she did, and flowing dresses that she wore,” McMullan added. “So I began with a rather strong image in my mind of what she’d be like as a dancer.”
But for the José Limón stamp, McMullan had his own memories for inspiration.
“I saw him back in the 80s at the end of his career and so I had a pretty good idea of him,” he said. “I did one sketch of him dancing a very famous dance he did called the ‘Moor’s Pavane,’ which was kind of obscure and dark. I was very attracted to it because I’d seen him dance it.”
However, the United States Postal Service didn’t share McMullan’s enthusiasm.
“They thought it wasn’t uplifting enough,” he joked. “I found another photograph of him dancing a more exuberant kind of dance. But he was a man very much attracted to ancient myths and to death and transfiguration.”
When designing the posters, McMullan used mostly watercolor and a bit of gouache. “Gouache is opaque watercolor and I sometimes use it with the transparent watercolor. If you brush it in at a certain point when the surface is wet, it gives you a very velvety, wonderful texture, so I did that with blue shadows on a couple of dancers,” he said.
Although this is McMullan’s first foray into stamp design, it isn’t the first time his drawings have been produced in that format.
“Lincoln Center commemorated 20 years [of my work] and they made little stamps out of all of my posters,” he said. “But they were just decorative stamps that were put on envelopes.”
Although McMullan has not yet been asked to design additional stamps for the United States Postal Service, he said he would be open to the possibility, since he had such a positive experience.
“I’m very happy to have done those [stamps],” he said. “It was a good match.”