Capturing The African American Experience Through Illustrations

By Brittany Hutson

It sounds repetitive and maybe a little cliché but when you stay committed and remain truthful to yourself and your passion, you can reap invaluable rewards. Just ask Kadir Nelson. For a little over a decade, the San-Diego based illustrator has been capturing the beauty of the African American experience while attracting everyone from big-name corporations to celebrities. His talent caught the eye of one of the most influential people of this generation, which resulted in his most recent and infamous work of art yet.

The seeds for the project were planted around 2000 when Nelson was commissioned to do a number of paintings of singer Marvin Gaye. These paintings would be hung in Gaye’s old recording studio in Hollywood, where artists such as Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson recorded.

“I’m told [Michael] would visit the studio, not to record, but to look at the painting, which was really, really flattering,” said Nelson.

One afternoon, Nelson received a call from Jackson himself, who told Nelson how much he enjoyed the Marvin Gaye paintings and wanted to commission Nelson to do a painting of him.

“He said ‘I want it to be bigger’,” chuckled Nelson.

Unfortunately, the two wouldn’t get the chance to collaborate on the project. Their paths separated and Jackson passed away in 2009.

After Jackson’s death, Nelson received a call from the gentleman who commissioned the Marvin Gaye paintings. This same guy was also Michael’s manager, unbeknownst to Nelson at the time.

“He said, ‘it’s time for you to do that painting that Michael wanted you to do.”

Nelson dedicated nearly a year to painting what is now the cover art for Jackson’s first posthumous release titled Michael, which will be in stores next month. The painting pays homage to the greatest moments of the King of Pop’s solo career. It features a medley of classic MJ images, from his Off the Wall-era tux to his signature red leather jacket from his video for “Beat It.” The painting also includes the image of Jackson from his 1987 hit album Bad and him in his custom-made tuxedo jacket, pink shirt and red bowtie that he wore in the “Billie Jean” video.

“I talked to his brother Jackie and he would help me fill in the gaps of the story I didn’t know,” said Nelson. “It was a really great project and unfortunately, Michael hasn’t been able to see it but the people around him really liked the painting.”

Not too shabby for a guy who once thought he would make a career out of playing basketball. Born in Washington, D.C., Nelson had a love of both basketball and art as a child. Though he originally focused on being a basketball player as his primary career, he never strayed too far from his love affair with art. He started taking his passion seriously around age 11 and spent time apprenticing for his uncle, a fine artist and high school art instructor.

In a twist of fate, Nelson broke his finger just before the start of basketball season his senior year. “I really wasn’t good enough to play basketball professionally,” admitted Nelson. “I didn’t put as much time and effort into it as I did with my art.”

While he was fortunate to have the support and encouragement of his family to pursue his passion for art, Nelson still couldn’t shake the infamous cliché that artists are not able to support themselves with their work, i.e. the starving artist lifestyle. “I heard that a lot so I got a scholarship to Pratt Institute to study architecture,” he said. “I felt I would get a real job and do my artwork on the side.”

Just like basketball, architecture wasn’t his forte and Nelson changed his major to illustration.

After graduating, Nelson received calls from Sports Illustrated and Dreamworks Studios. The film studio was searching for an African American artist to paint images of slavery so Steven Spielberg could review it for a movie he would be directing. That movie turned out to be 1997’s Amistad, the historical drama based on the true story of a slave mutiny that took place abroad a ship of the same name in 1839.

“It was a lot of build up, it didn’t just fall out of the sky,” said Nelson. “I was really fortunate to have those two [jobs] because I had just gotten married and my daughter was on the way.”

After working with Dreamworks, one would think Nelson’s career continued to skyrocket. But it came to a halt. For six months, he got no offers. “That was tough because I thought since I worked on a Steven Spielberg movie that my phone would be ringing off the hook.”

Eventually, he received another call from Dreamworks and was recruited to serve as the lead conceptual artist for the animated feature, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.

In 1999, Nelson began collaborating with several authors for a series of illustrated books, including Ntozake Shange’s Coretta Scott King, and Spike and Tonya Lee’s Please, Baby, Please. He became a New York Times best-selling author in 2008 when he released his debut, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. He’s also worked with the United States Postal Service—this year, the postal service issued 44-cent Negro League Baseball commemorative stamps in two designs, including an illustration of Andrew “Rube” Foster.

Coming up, Nelson is working on a series of paintings for Coca-Cola for their Black History Month promotion and the Essence Music Festival. His biggest project is his upcoming book called Heart and Soul about the relationship between Americans and African Americans. “It tells the story of America through the eyes of an old African American woman,” explained Nelson.

Even though his work tends to focus on African American subject matter, it is more important to him that he is recognized as an artist first. “I think people look at it a little differently as being less than and that’s not really a positive thing,” he said. “I focus on creating great art.”

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