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
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
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
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
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
KN : Playing with
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
is a local free-lance writer and mother.