Tag Archive | "Lincoln Center"

Post Office Honors Dance

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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.”

James McMullan: Imagining the Scene

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Theater posters represent a unique art form. Graphically intriguing and designed to catch the eye, in a single moment, a good poster says enough about a play to entice audiences – yet does not risk alienation by revealing too much.

Tapping into the core idea of a play and interpreting it in a single iconic image is a talent that Sag Harbor’s James McMullan has mastered. For 23 years, McMullan has been the principal poster artist for Lincoln Center Theater productions. From “South Pacific” to “Six Degrees of Separation” and “Carousel,” McMullan’s work is instantly identifiable and always unique.

By its nature, poster art is fleeting — pasted up on train station platforms or in subway corridors, it is both transit and transient. Yet long after the plays have closed, many of McMullan’s posters remain larger than life (literally) and continue to persist in the mind’s eye.

Fans of McMullan’s work can see some of his most famous posters up close and personal in “McMullan’s Theater Posters: First Sketches to Final Art” on view through September 8 in the Avram Gallery at Stony Brook Southampton. The exhibit features more than a dozen full size McMullan posters, along with his original artwork for each. Also on view are four projects which show his entire working process from pencil sketch to final product — complete with photographs, rejected sketches and alternate versions.

“People are always amazed that these originals are so tiny yet they blow up very big,” notes McMullan, holding his latest mock-up for “Dividing The Estate” a poster he is currently designing for Horton Foote’s play starring Elizabeth Ashley which opens at Lincoln Center in October.

McMullan almost always portrays key characters from the play in his posters. Through photographs — ideally taken of the actual actors, though he will use stand-ins if necessary — he strives to capture the essence of the play in a single pose.

“That is really my take on the play — the pose,” explains McMullan. “It’s important for me to find that moment of connection in the play. What am I interested in? What connects to my own psychology?”

“It’s what every artist does,” he says. “Within the subject matter you find the hot spot, the place that really interests and intrigues you and makes you want to go in. It’s a point of entry. I know what the play’s about — but where do I get into the play?”

Many times, that answer reveals itself with help from the actor who brings his or her own unique take and mannerisms for the character to the photo session.

“Every person gives you a new kind of landscape of detail, particularly in the way people move,” adds McMullan. “I like to immerse myself in the ideas and details of the photograph, and then at a certain point during the process, I stop looking at the photograph. I’ve internalized what’s in the photo and draw without it.”

The process has worked well for McMullan, whose reputation is now such that directors often insist on a McMullan poster for their Lincoln Center productions. He notes that it’s always important that they be included in the discussion as well.

“I read the script two or three times and talk to the director and playwright if available,” says McMullan. “One thing I don’t want to happen is that the director doesn’t feel like I listened to him and taken into consideration what he’s thinking.”

While many of the ideas for McMullan’s posters gel organically through a flash of inspiration, there are other times when the process is a struggle — particularly when a director has preconceived notions about what a McMullan poster should look like.

“It starts with this idea that they love me enough to want my poster,” says McMullan. “Then as it’s going on they think, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a hand in Jim McMullan’s poster?’”

“If my first art doesn’t go through, I do a second one adjusting to what they said. Then it goes to a third one and after that it becomes a long winded situation,” he grins. “If I didn’t have a streak of masochism, I’m not sure I would be able to do it as long as I have.”

“McMullan’s Theater Posters: First Sketches to Final Art” runs through September 8 at the Avram Gallery at Stony Brook, Southampton, 239 Montauk Highway.

James McMullan Talks Shop

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