FINDING HOME: James McMullan – Leaving China

FINDING HOME: James McMullan – Leaving China


(Chinese music) – Pretty early, when I stayed
at Soft Spring Island in 1942, they had a subscription
to Saturday Evening Post. And I just got fascinated
with these illustrators, and the whole idea of illustration. I thought, wow I wanna do that! So that was a pretty
early idea that there was this thing in the world
called illustration. People doing images for
publications and for books. And it was interesting work. Norman Rockwell, I mean
I loved the emotionalism of what he was doing. I was a sucker for the
stories that he was telling, and how beautiful they were. And the idea that he was
looking at real people, so that the paintings were
always reflecting a real person. I think Rockwell really
embedded the idea of being an illustrator, even though my work was never
that realistic or careful. But still, he was very
influential in that he showed me what was possible, you
could tell emotional stories and it’s through your art. And I loved that. Then when I went to Art school, I discovered the German expressionists. Like Egon Schiele, they were all very very influential to me. The directness of it, that you really felt the drawing hand. And I’ve always been attracted to that, art that disguises the drawing hand is not very interesting to me. I mean some of it is
beautiful, I have to say. But my own impulse is always for art that doesn’t disguise how the artist got there. You can see the hand moving, you can see the gesture being made. I’ve always been recognized as a kind of literary illustrator, because I am. I’m a reader, I think about
things in literary terms. Even at the height of
the Psychedelic movement when there was a lot
of pressure on me to be bolder and more colorful,
I still got work. So I kind of stuck to my
guns, and I used watercolor. And I think that’s one thing that helps an illustrator in their career is that you feel a consistent voice even if it’s not the most
fashionable voice on the planet. I’ve always been a
little off center in the field of illustration. Ironic I say I don’t do advertising, but of course my posters
are a form of advertising but I think the usefulness to the theater, to Lincoln Center Theater,
is that they don’t look like advertising. My grandparents were
Protestant missionaries that went out to China in the 1860s. So my father was actually
born on home leave. You worked for a certain stretch of time and then you got a year
back home, back in England. So he was born in one
of their home leaves. But he was basically raised in Chefoo, and spoke several dialects of Chinese. He loved the Chinese
and loved the culture. So he wanted to be a musician
and he went to Canada to the University of British
Columbia to study music, but while he was there he met my mother who was a divorcee with two children. Anyway, he ended up working
for the James McMullan Company to support us, and so
by the time I was born it was a fairly good life and the company was doing very well. Chefoo at that point was
going through a pretty good economic period where everyone
was doing pretty well. Of course once the Japanese came in 1937 it started to slow down and we hung on, just like some of the
Jewish families in Europe that couldn’t believe that this solid life that they had created
could really be decimated by this other force. So we left it pretty late, but
other members of our family left it even later, and they
became prisoners of war. But we got out on the
second to last repatriation boat out of China. We went from Shanghai to San Francisco and then from San Francisco to Canada, and various places in
Canada during the war. And then my father arranged
for us to leave on a boat to go to India. He would join us in
India and then my mother would go with him to China, because at that point he
was the military attache at the British Embassy. And I went to the boarding
school in (inaudible), which was a sound adventure. And then my father got
killed at the end of the war. Obviously that was
really hard on my mother because she’d had all of
these anxious months where he was out of contact
working behind the lines with the Chinese troops. And not knowing if he’s dead or alive. We lived for a year in Shanghai. Then we got on a ship
and returned to Canada. That’s basically the events and the places that the book covers. I had just turned 11 by
the time all of that ended, so it’s basically the
first 10 and a half years of my life. And there’s stories that
rocket around my head throughout my life. I realize that they
were the touchstones of a lot of my anxieties, and what made my personality the way it is which is basically the
personality of somebody that stands to the side and watches, rather than someone that
plunges in, as it were. The good news about that
is that I think that the basis of the fact of
why I love drawing so much is that it’s the natural
outcome of watching. And thinking about people,
and being basically a voyeur. And why I waited so long to do the book I can’t exactly explain, but there just came a moment in my 70s when I wanted to do it. Once I broke the ice for
myself in starting to think about the stories
and write them down and started to do sketching, I thought oh my God,
this is so rich for the process of painting, of finding images. And it suddenly came flooding out. And even the style that I chose, which is really a little
bit unlike any style I’ve ever used. I would say I it was a gusher. I couldn’t wait to get
back to the drawing table and do more of those paintings. I did think about it, this
Olympian view of backing off and being on a kind of
medium-height little hill looking down at things. My early reactions to Chinese art, are the scrolls in which there
are big landscapes, right? And you’re looking at mountains,
you’re looking at rivers, there’s a huge expanse. And usually the figures
will be like a little fisherman in a boat, or people
in a pavilion drinking tea. So there’s this idea or
reality that you can say a lot with small figures
within a big composition. Which is sort of against
the whole Western idea that you have to be very
close in order to say stuff. And the color became extremely important. I wanted some color that
I was using throughout which was not a naturalistic color, in other words I put it
into the realm of memory or of not surrealism exactly, but that purple became
a color of distancing. But once I had that idea of purple, then I could wrangle
it one way or another. There’s something in
the reality of the art that is just not possible to reproduce. The texture of the paper,
paper is so important to me and the materials are so important. All of the stuff that lands on the paper, it just has a resonance that
the printed thing can’t have. I think too that the riskiness
of my approach in painting is more palpable in the
originals than in reproduction, people can see that my
procedure is not to do careful pencil drawings
and chase things down, it’s all immediate, in the moment. There are lots of
paintings for Leaving China that I destroyed because
they didn’t work out. But nevertheless that’s what it is. But anyway, leaving
China was a great respite and a great year, more than a year. But to have that period
of time where I was working on my own text,
on my own soul as it were, it was amazing. It did show me that as
much as I think I get my own opinions into my work, which I do, but it’s a lot different
than having a project like Leaving China
where I really am saying what I mean, and saying it in the way that I choose to say it. (Chinese music)

local_offerevent_note November 8, 2019

account_box Matthew Anderson


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One thought on “FINDING HOME: James McMullan – Leaving China”

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