Sunlight streams into James McMullan’s Sag Harbor studio on a lazy Friday afternoon, where he stands working quietly on a small watercolor study for his latest project.
“I’m struggling to do the poster for ‘The King and I,’” he says, breaking a comfortable silence, and then laughs, “They turned down my first idea. So, back to the drawing board.”
He gestures to his drafting table—where the illustrator has created more than 80 watercolor posters for his client, Lincoln Center Theater, over the last 30 years—and then waves his hand across nearly 60 paintbrushes, wiggling his fingers before gingerly wrapping them around the selected one.
With a splash of water and a dab of pigment, Mr. McMullan is back to work and, for just a moment, loses himself in his art, disconnected from his life that began in China on the brink of World War II, which the 79-year-old explores in his illustrated memoir, “Leaving China,” published in March by Algonquin Books—after much hesitation.
“I didn’t feel that I had a heroic story to tell,” he explains. “I had a story of endurance to tell.”
Mr. McMullan was born in Tsingtao, now Qingdao, on June 14, 1934, the grandson of missionaries who settled there. He was sweet and obedient—“just the sort of boy you worry about,” he smiles, “a bit of a scaredy-cat”—but wasn’t great at being a kid. He preferred copying Chinese scrolls to playing sports, reading literature to studying science—much to his larger-than-life father’s chagrin, despite his own love for music.
Still, life was good. The boy took for granted a privileged life of household servants, rickshaw rides and picnics on the shore. Until the Japanese Army arrived in 1937.
“Soldiers would run in cadence at night outside the little lane that was right next to our house,” Mr. McMullan recalls. “And a guy with a flaming torch would lead them. They would do what all soldiers would do when you’re running—you grunt or do a song. For some reason, it was like a nightmare, hearing these guys go down that lane.”
Tension grew in their town of Cheefoo, and inside the family’s household. In the summer of 1941, the British Consulate warned all British nationals to leave the country.
The young boy and his mother caught the second to last ship out of Shanghai before the city was captured—while the family’s patriarch went off to fight with the Allied forces—and lived in Canada for a short while before moving around the globe, from the United States to India, and eventually back to China.
Mr. McMullan switched schools 12 times before graduation. “It was a very painful time. I was the kind of kid who couldn’t wait for adulthood,” he says. “I was constantly with a new group of people. Often, I had the wrong accent.”
On August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered and, a month later, a serious-looking young officer met Mr. McMullan at his boarding school in Darjeeling, India, and asked to take him out for ice cream. After the boy had finished most of his sundae, the officer told him that his father had been killed in a plane crash. He wrapped his arms around the child and told him he could cry.
“Had my father survived the war, and had we gotten to know each other, I hope he would have come to realize, ‘Okay, I got an arty kind of kid, and I’m not gonna have the other kind.’ But we never got the chance to work it out,” Mr. McMullan sighs, looking down. “His death filled me with this sense that I would never have a father, this father that, in some way, I had longed for. But, also, it released me from confronting him after the war and being a disappointment to him. So I had very strange, mixed feelings, which I felt very guilty about.”
Mr. McMullan’s sense of remove from reality—which he has felt since he was a boy—also helped soothe his emotions. He saw his life as a story. And five years ago, after rediscovering a box of wartime letters between his parents, he finally decided he was ready to tell it.
“I just let myself float back into those years and accept them,” he says. “And to start to write about them. Before it was all too late.”
The artist disappears into his studio closet and reemerges with a classic black-cover sketchbook under his arm—one he doesn’t show to many. He places it on a nearby table and flips open to the first page. “Chapter One,” it reads. “Jimmie’s Grandparents arrive in Cheefoo.” Underneath, the story begins in tight, neat cursive, followed by a rough sketch. In some cases, they are nearly exact to one of 53 illustrations—heavily featuring purple tones, “the color of dreams,” Mr. McMullan says—that appear alongside their respective, page-long chapters.
“Even when I look at it now, I’m kind of surprised,” he says of the sketchbook, flipping the pages until he stops abruptly. “Wow! This is amazing! Let me see if I can find that one.”
He dives, nearly headfirst, into a large brown box full of the book’s framed, original watercolors. A few moments later, he reemerges with the desired painting and excitedly tears off the bubble wrap, revealing a scene in Vancouver of a huge killer whale, swimming not 8 feet from a young Mr. McMullan, crouched inside a nearby cave.
He holds it up to the sketchbook. It is nearly identical to the initial drawing, he points out and smiles, despite himself. Though as he looks through a number of the remaining paintings, his expression dissolves from exuberance to contemplation.
“On a deep level, it was hard reliving some of these memories,” he said. “But, on the other hand, once I got to writing and painting, I felt very responsible as an artist. I had to have enough distance from what I was doing to be able to form it. And to make it beautiful.”
With that, he closes his sketchbook and nods. He has done just that.
James McMullan will visit the Amagansett Free Library on Saturday, May 31, at 6 p.m. to discuss his memoir, “Leaving China.” For more information, call (631) 267-3810, or visit amaglibrary.org.