Kadir Nelson Draws a Path to Success

Crawford HighSchool's Award-Winning Artist
November 2001

     If you haven't heard of Kadir Nelson or seen his extraordinary artwork, you're missing out on undoubtedly one of the most gifted illustrators of our time. Nelson, a soft-spoken, introspective and intensely private man, has illustrated numerous children's books and created artwork for Vibe magazine, The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and Nike. He also was the conceptual artist for Steven Spielberg's film "Amistad" and illustrator of the film's commemorative companion book film.
     This award-winning artist's work has been exhibited worldwide, and many celebrities have commissioned him for their private art collections. Looking at Nelson's work, you find meticulous, striking detail and propulsive, spirited images that capture a range of

emotions. His exaggeration of gesture, such as the elongation of limbs and serpentine lines, is fluid, graceful and just plain fun.
     Influenced by Ernie Barnes, Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, Thomas Blackshear and Michael Jordan, Nelsons artwork represents Americana at its best, with illustrations so powerful and spiritual, they jump off the page, grabbing the reader to become part of the story.
     Nelson, who lives in San Diego with his wife and young daughters, ages 4 and 1, was born in Washington, D.C. He lived for a while in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and later moved to San Diego, where he graduated from Crawford High School. After high school, Nelson was offered architecture scholarships to the Rhode Island School of Design, Syracuse University as well as Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.
     He says he chose Pratt, an art school, because it was a smaller, more intimate school, chock full of artists of every kind. He also chose it because it was in New York City. Interestingly, Nelson originally chose to major in architecture because he knew he could earn a living doing it. However, his heart wasn't into it, and in his sophomore year he decided to focus on illustration because he loves rendered, figurative work that tells a story.
      SDFM : Growing up, were you one of those kids who was always drawing or doodling?
      KN: Yes, I don't remember not doing it. I always knew I'd be an artist. My mother was so supportive, and she never talked me out of it. I was also fortunate that I had an uncle who was an art teacher, and at 11 years old I spent the summer with him. He introduced me to the seriousness of taking care of my gift.
      SDFM : Did you take art classes in school or after school?
      KN: Art was done at home. In high school, there were no art or music classes. My uncle taught me to work with watercolors, which are different than opaque mediums like acrylics. Then I made the transition to oils when I was older. I went back to learn from my uncle.
      SDFM: What is the favorite piece of artwork you've done?
      KN: Umm, there are several pieces that I've liked.
      SDFM: What about your first piece?
      KN: I think I was 11 years old and I sold something to my uncle’s friend for maybe $20. I forgot what it was, maybe a bear painting or something like that. I think my uncle was disappointed; he wanted a rendering of Martin Luther King, but he got a bear instead. Then, when I was 16 years old, my mother put on a fund-raising art show in San Diego, and my work was put up for sale.
      SDFM : I've read that Ernie Barnes has influenced you. What is it about Barnes' work that inspires you?
      KN: It's the motion and movement that he captures. I've also been influenced by Michael Jordan. I translate movement from photos, and by playing the game — you know, to jump, shoot or
stretch — I can communicate that emotion and movement into art.
      SDFM : When did you get your big break?
      KN : My last year in college, I interned for a month at the Society of Illustrators. I was invited to their annual show and had a piece in it. It led to a publisher calling for "Big Jabe." I also knew someone at Dream Works and my portfolio ended up at "Amistad." I met Debbie Allen on the film, and she 2 was looking to turn her stage production of "Brothers of the Knight" into a book. She needed an illustrator and I asked her to give me the chance.
      SDFM : Both my kids love all of your books, but my daughter in particular loves the ballerinas in your book with Debbie Allen, "Dancing in the Wings." The elongation of the limbs and the curve of their bodies mesmerize her. Is the artist told what to draw or are you given complete artistic freedom?
      KN : Usually artists are given a lot of freedom. Ultimately it's up to the artist to interpret and decide on the illustrations. It was great working with Debbie. She gave advice and input about the different poses since I wasn't familiar with it.
      SDFM: How much time does it take to illustrate a book?
      KN: Usually you're given a year, but sometimes they want a rush job - two to three months.
      SDFM : Every artist has a certain way of approaching his or her work. What's your process?
      SDFM: How has being a father changed your art or outlook in life?
      KN: Well, before I had a family, I had no plans for children's books. I didn't understand them; I forgot about being a kid. Now I get it, and I remember the joy I had. My art has changed because I've grown. Before, there were no people smiling, now I take the experiences I have as a father and put them into books. Before kids, my work was monochromatic, now it's more colorful.
      SDFM : What's the hardest part about fatherhood?
      KN : Remaining cool--not blowing up. Being an artist is difficult. In the beginning, working on my craft and dealing with interruptions was hard.
      SDFM : What's the easiest part?
      KN : Playing with the girls.
      SDFM : Does your oldest like to draw?
      KN : Yes, she's pretty good, but I don't want to push her into it. My mom didn't push me, but she encouraged it.
      SDFM : What else are you passionate about?
      KN : My family. And I chill out by playing basketball. I pick up a game on weekends and in the mornings, but time is more limited now.
      SDFM : Well, we're almost done, just a couple of more questions. What about future projects? What are you working on now? I've heard that you're working on a tribute book about the old Negro baseball leagues. I'm thrilled because there's history and an important story that needs to be told.
      KN : I just finished a book of poetry, a children's Christmas book (due December 2002), and I'm working on a book with Spike Lee's wife, Tanya Lewis Lee, called "Please, Baby Please." It's a children's book about a little kid who gets into everything, (due 2003). And I'm working on the tribute book about the old Negro Baseball Leagues. It's a more mature style of painting due sometime in 2004.
Kadir Nelson's illustrations from "Dancing in the Wings," "Brothers of the Knight," "Just the Two of Us" and "Salt in His Shoes: Michael Jordan in Pursuit of a Dream" are currently on exhibit at the Simon Weisenthal Center, Museum of Tolerance, in Los Angeles through the end of this month. You can view more of his artwork - prints, commissioned pieces and limited editions - online at www.kadirnelson.com.

Sharon Taylor-Hupfert is a local free-lance writer and mother.