Throughout childhood, Kadir Nelson viewed the world through the lens of an artist, drawing by the age of three and painting by the age of ten. He remembers one rainy winter day in Atlantic City, New Jersey. “My family was piling into my grandmother’s white Cadillac and I stood and waited for everyone to get inside. It was cold and breezy, and warm streetlights reflected off the shiny bluish sidewalk. I stood there feeling warm, wrapped up in my heavy winter coat, enjoying the breeze and the scenery. I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is beautiful.’ I was a six-year-old kid savoring the moment. It felt pretty special to me.”
Art is in Nelson’s blood; his uncle, artist Michael Morris, apprenticed ten-year-old Nelson. “My uncle gave me my foundation in art,” Nelson says. A series of breaks boosted his career—an art scholarship to Pratt Institute, an internship at the Society of Illustrators, and various early commissions. His work eventually found its way to Dreamworks/Amblin Studios where Amistad was in pre-production. Nelson says, “I was hired as a conceptual artist for the film to illustrate key moments throughout the story to give the director, Steven Spielberg, an idea of what the film could look and feel like.”
Gallery showings and freelance commissions continued to occupy Nelson, but while working on Amistad he met Debbie Allen, the film’s producer and the author of the first book he would illustrate, Brothers of the Knight (1999). The publication of his first book, naturally, led to others. “I was asked by an editor if I’d like to try my hand at illustrating…Big Jabe (2000) by Jerdine Nolen,” Nelson says. “I hesitated a moment because I was interested in other paths in art, but I liked the story and thought I’d give it a go. I found the work to be interesting, very open, and light on art direction. It was a good fit.”
Nelson works in a combination of oils, watercolor and pencil on paper, or strictly oils on canvas or wood, and uses experiences from his life to inform his illustrations and make them more meaningful. “I try to pick moments from my childhood and adult life and find a way to integrate them into my work,” Nelson says. “For example, I used light moments like jumping on a bed, or tree climbing for Hewitt Anderson’s Great Big Life [by Jerdine Nolen]. And observational moments from my childhood for Ellington Was Not A Street [by Ntozake Shange] as I remember watching my father and uncles play cards or chess.” Nelson based the setting for All God’s Critters by Bill Staines on a middle school production of Oklahoma. “The cast of performers were not exactly the most gifted singers or actors,” Nelson says, “but [they] worked perfectly for my needs as they would be transformed into singing animals.” When confronted with illustrating Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, Nelson searched for visual references of Tubman on the Internet and in books and magazines, but found few pictures. “I turned to my grandmother who resembles Tubman in many ways,” Nelson says. “She’s short, similar in complexion, and very feisty.”
We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball is Nelson’s debut book as both author and illustrator. “Writing is much more difficult as it doesn’t come as natural to me as painting,” he says, “but I love a challenge, and I love using that part of my brain.” As Nelson gathers ideas and facts for his books, he underlines text and dog-ears pages in source materials and jots ideas in the margins and on scraps of paper. Before submitting a manuscript to his editor, he says, “I’ll write a few drafts…and read it aloud to myself several times.” Together Nelson and his editor discuss the strong and weak points and necessary changes. “I’ll make revisions and we repeat the process until we’ve honed it down to something we both love,” he says. As he begins to sketch the illustrations, Nelson’s research gives him a sense of the visual world his characters inhabit. “The idea is to have a well-rounded understanding of the subject and his/her environment,” he says. To supplement his visual reference for We Are the Ship, he dressed in a baseball uniform and photographed himself.
The soft-spoken Nelson works from his home in San Diego, concentrating on administrative busy-work in the morning and painting or writing the remainder of the day. As he works, Nelson ignores trends and invests himself in each project. “I seek to tell the truth with my work,” he says. After completing each project, he looks ahead to the next. “My next book is always my favorite,” he says. “It has to be because I spend several months working on one book, and if I don’t enjoy it, it will show in the artwork.”