From a comfortably cluttered artist's studio in a battered loft building at Lexington Avenue and 27th Street in Manhattan came the luminous watercolors that illustrate Frank Deford's Kentucky Derby reminiscences (page 80). The artist, James McMullan, has previously applied his discernment to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED stories as various as Jeannette Bruce's trek by Land Rover through the Sahara, Larry Merchant's journal of a season of betting professional football, Dick Francis' short story about an alcoholic sports-writer at the Derby and, most recently, Robert Cantwell's exploration of the sporting reveries of Marcel Proust.
The challenge of being an illustrator, according to McMullan, lies in the artist being confronted with material from outside himself, which he must then process through his own psyche, his own talents and his own interests to produce something that fulfills the needs of both story and artist. "The material always changes you a little bit," he says. "You are forced to go somewhere you have never been before. In this job, for instance, I did my first 100,000-person crowd. If I had thought beforehand about drawing the illusion of all those people, it would have seemed like a deadly bore. But as I worked, it became very interesting. The trick of it was making the crowd recede, from actual figures in the foreground to a lot of dots and then to a sort of haze at the rear of the stands."
McMullan was given the Derby assignment by Art Director Richard Gangel, who says, "The beautiful visual responses created by words and sentences are things McMullan is able to reproduce with water and color on paper. It's a small miracle, really."
McMullan prefers to create his miracles surrounded, he says, "by a certain neutral mess out of which the work can sort of flower." In the case of the Derby job, the mess consisted of books on Churchill Downs, photographs he took on a brief trip there last month, a copy of Deford's story and "every postcard in sight at the Louisville airport. Whenever I am on an out-of-town job I buy all the postcards I can find because they encapsulate, in a dumb way, a lot of terribly useful information."
April 28, 1974
The grandson of Anglican missionaries, McMullan was born in Shantung province of northern China. Because of the disruptions of World War II. his education took place in four countries. He changed schools 15 times before he got to high school. At 16 he came to the U.S. and just before his 19th birthday, in the last days of the Korean war, he volunteered and found himself assigned as an illustrator to a psychological warfare unit in North Carolina. "We drew things like a new place to mount a loudspeaker on a tank or a new way to load a bomb with leaflets. They were supposed to be secret documents, but I could never imagine that the Russians and the Chinese hadn't figured it all out years before."
Of his work, McMullan says, "I want people to feel the art but also to feel the human risk, the human decisions that went into it." That, most human sporting institution, the Kentucky Derby, seems a particularly appropriate arena in which to observe the expression of McMullan's philosophy.