Kadir Nelson: His Work and His Process

Interviewed and Written by: Fred McKissack

Kadir Nelson creating work for "We are the Ship"
Kadir Nelson creating work for “We are the Ship”

As a painter, Kadir Nelson has illuminated subjects ranging from Negro League baseball in “We Are the Ship” and Joe Louis in “A Nation’s Hope” to Michael Jackson and the lives of African Americans in the sweeping epic “Heart and Soul.”

At Pratt Institute—one of the country’s premier art colleges—Nelson started off as an architecture student, but quickly realized that he wanted to be a painter. It was a wise choice. Nelson’s award-winning work has drawn praise from critics, awe from readers, awards from the American Library Association and the NAACP, and been collected by Denzel Washington, Venus Williams and Steven Spielberg.

Nelson took time out of his day to talk about his work and his process.

Q: How did “We Are the Ship” come to be published? And how much did you know about the Negro Baseball Leagues prior to writing and illustrating the book?

Kadir: I had heard of the Negro Leagues, but I really didn’t know much about them. It wasn’t until someone asked me to do a painting on the subject—and in doing some research—that I became captivated by the leagues, the stories and the players. At first, I was doing paintings out of my love for the subject. I didn’t have any intentions of publishing them until I was asked if I had ever thought of putting them into a book. I thought it was a really great idea so I approached my editors to see if they were interested in the idea.

Kadir Nelson's Painting of Jackie Robinson
Kadir Nelson’s paints Jackie Robinson larger than life.

Q: “We Are the Ship” is such an intensely striking book with images that make you feel like you’re right there in the moment. Can you walk us through the research process for the book, particularly in how one might approach research as an illustrator and a writer?

Kadir: I think research for both is very similar. I’m looking for information, whether for visuals or text. When it came to doing research for the artwork, it was a bit challenging because most of the images available were black and white photographs. So, for example, I had to find out what their uniforms looked like, and whether the players were right- or left-handed, their height and weight, things like that because details are very important… the details make the images more realistic.

Q: What was the experience like as a writer versus being an illustrator? Did you feel more anxiety about the project than if you were the illustrator?

Kadir: I had no idea what I was doing. All I had to go by was old homework assignments from high school and college, basically essay writing. So I took that skill and used it to write creative essays from the perspective of a former Negro League player.

Q: Was it your plan to write the book as well?

Kadir: No. I thought I would just do the illustrations. However, as I continued to work on the artwork and as learn the story, I knew how I wanted to tell the story. I didn’t feel comfortable telling an established writer how to write it, so I very boldly asked my editor if I could write it, and she immediately gave me the green light.

Q: Why did you choose that voice, which would be a bold choice even for an established writer?

Kadir: I choose to write WATS in that voice because I had read a number of interviews and did a few of my own, and everyone spoke in the first person or in the voice of “we.” It was a natural way of telling the story and I wanted it to be something that drew in the reader.

Kansas City Dugout
Kansas City Dugout

Q: Did you seek out other writers or did you just use your own voice?

Kadir: No, I didn’t. But I remembered hearing Nikki Giovanni once say that there was no such thing as writer’s block, just a lack of information. So I made sure I had plenty of information. I was all over the place at first, but it wasn’t until I heard a voice in the back of my head say, “It seems like we’ve been playing baseball for a mighty long time,” that I knew how I was going to tell the story. It was very easy to write it after that.

Q: Another book of yours, “A Nation’s Hope,” the story of Joe Lewis, was released earlier this year and it was immediately hailed for its art and storytelling. This time you worked with award-winning author Matt de la Pena. How do writers and illustrators work together, if at all?

Kadir: Generally, the author will write the text and the publisher will serve as the go-between. This was a little bit different. Matt and I have the same literary agent, who paired us together. And we spoke shortly after Matt had written the book. He had written it very fast. It was great. There were only maybe one or two lines we couldn’t use. But generally, I won’t be in communication with an author, while he or she is writing the book. And that’s the best way to do it. They deserve their creative space to work on the manuscript just as I need space when I receive the text and work on the images.

Q: How do you work when you’re illustrating a book? Do you set time limits or have set schedule?

Kadir: I work on it pretty much non-stop until it is finished. I don’t really know how many hours a day I work, but it generally takes about two to three months to complete a book, at least for the illustrations.

Mighty Josh Gibson pencil drawing
Mighty Josh Gibson pencil drawing

Q: Do you listen to music or any outside stimulus when you’re working?

Kadir: I always listen to music when I’m painting, but I can’t draw or create sketches to music. It has to be quiet.

Q: When you receive a finished copy of the book, do you find yourself nit picking or do you just let it go?

Kadir: That’s usually the case, as far as being a critic of my own work. It’s always that way, there’s always something that I could have done better.

Q: One thing that artists and writers have a hard time processing when a work is done. How do you process that for yourself?

Kadir: I don’t think I have an answer for that. When it’s done, you just know. It’s like when you’re cooking something–it smells right, tastes right. I know there are people who have personalities where they look at their work and just pick it apart. I’m not that way. If it’s a painting, then I can always change it. If it’s published, you can’t.

Q: How do you deal with reviews? Have you ever been stung by a review?

Kadir: When I did the Michael Jackson painting, which went all over the world, there were people who really hated it. I didn’t enjoy that, and I started picking it apart myself. I finally realized that some people just don’t care if it’s a good painting, they just didn’t like him. It took a while to shake that off.

Q: How important is continuing education for you as an established painter and illustrator?

Kadir: It’s always a learning process. I think it would be very arrogant of me to believe that I don’t have anymore to learn. I’m still—like most creative people—trying to hone my craft and become a better artist. I go to museums, read, watch other artists work.

Q: Who are your influences?

Kadir: I look at the old masters and see what made them masters. I like turn-of-the century painters. I love  Henry O. Tanner’s work. There are so many great painters to learn from, and their work gets better as you get older. You notice things you didn’t notice before. There are a few contemporary fine artists I enjoy.

Q: An advice for young artists?

Kadir: I would recommend that they enjoy and love what they’re doing. Create images or work that they love. Hone your skills…be disciplined, and educate yourself. View the masters and learn from them.

Kadir Nelson, East-West All-Stars, 2006
Kadir Nelson, East-West All-Stars, 2006

The Fort Wayne Museum of Art Presents:
The Story of Negro League Baseball: Original Paintings by Kadir Nelson

August 20 – October 16, 2011
Sponsored by Lincoln Financial Foundation

Lecture & Book Signing
Thursday, September 29, 2011
WE ARE THE SHIP: Telling the Story with Words and Paintings
Lecture by Kadir Nelson
$5 FWMoA Members/$10 General Public
RSVP online at fwmoa.org or by calling 260.422.6467, ext. 313

This extraordinary opportunity to experience the story of Negro League Baseball is your chance to discover, from the artist/author himself, the method and philosophies that shaped this particular moment in contemporary art and storytelling. Award-winning artist Kadir Nelson will sign copies of WE ARE THE SHIP, available for sale in the Museum Store, after the lecture.

Kadir Nelson: http://kadirnelson.com

Negro League Baseball Museum: http://www.nlbm.com

Special thanks to Kadir Nelson, and Fred McKissack.

Educational content by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art: http://www.fwmoa.org

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