“I’m not here because I’m black, I’m here because I have some talent these guys want to exploit —and they do,” artist James Dupree says with a half smile.
The “here” is the cavernous Convention Center on the last Saturday before New Year’s Day. The “guys” are Bill McIntyre’s Shooting Stars, who would finish third in the Mummers Fancy Brigade Division competition. Dupree was putting in 18-hour days as the club frantically finalized its production.
Dupree, 68, designs and paints sets, scenery and props, and has been the house artist for the Shooting Stars off and on since 2005.
Dupree is a well known African American multimedia artist with a master’s in fine art from Penn, whose work is on permanent display at the Art Museum and other museums. And he’s a Mummer?
The Mummers, flaws and all, are “a major cultural entity,” he says.
He was content to enjoy Mummery from the sidelines until golf buddy John Narkin, a member of the Shooting Stars, asked him about working for the club.
“We hit it off from the beginning,” says Mickey Adams, the captain at the time, who offered Dupree a job as an artist.
Why not? thought Dupree, a slim man with an easy smile. What did he have to lose?
As it turned out, a lot of time — and money, too.
Dupree won’t say how much he’s paid — “it’s too embarrassing” — but he’s not in it for the money.
“Me being here, in my mind, makes a positive statement,” he tells me, putting down his paint brush. The positive statement is the work he creates, enshrined in Mummers history.
Despite his renown, of necessity he’s a paint brush for hire, who works for money. One definition of his success as an artist , he tells me with a satisfied smile, was putting his three daughters through college.
Another part of his success is tackling big jobs, such as the 50- by 22-foot backdrop he finished in a day and a half.
“I love painting fast and big,” he tells me. “It’s a challenge to myself.”
After the New Year’s performance, he grabbed some of the bold 4-by-6-foot totems he had created for the Shooting Stars production. He will sell them starting in February in his art gallery at 703 S. 6th St. to help recoup some of the money he lost while deep in Mummery.
He fit in with the 125-member Shooting Stars, he says, because “one thing these guys respect — they respect work, and I work hard.”
There were occasional bumps in the road between the university-trained artist and the mostly blue-collar Mummers.
“The first year, I wouldn’t let them put glitter on my sets, and they went nuts,” Dupree tells me.
Adams confirms the story. “We used to hit a lot of stuff with the glitter, more like a dust,” says the former captain. “That kind of dimmed the artwork he was creating, and he didn’t like that,” says Adams.
The new artist won out over the old tradition.
One really bad moment was Dupree seeing the n-word in the men’s room of a warehouse shared by seven Mummers clubs.
“We can’t have this bulls—,” he told Michael Adams, the captain, who had taken over from his father, Mickey.
“We’ll take care of this,” Adams said, and he did. “That was our first year in that building,” Adams says, “and that thing might have already been on the wall.”
Dupree’s black friends don’t understand why he works for the Mummers, he says. He’s aware of the lingering bitterness due to the Mummers’ history of racism and sexism, illustrated by this year’s wrongheaded flap over a Comics skit.
I sense Dupree sees himself as part of the cure.
Throughout his career, Dupree has taught college art courses, and when students ask where they can see his work, in addition to museums, he tells them, “the Mummers.”