'We Are the Ship' art exhibit shows baseball's segregated past

Growing up, artist Kadir Nelson was not a big baseball fan.

Considering that he has devoted much of his career to the sport, it's a little ironic.

"I'm still not a huge fan in that I don't follow any particular team, although I do enjoy going to games," said Nelson, 36. "I'm more of a fan of the history of the game."

A big chunk of that history will be on display in "We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball," an exhibit chronicling the leagues that flourished in the years before Jackie Robinson integrated the game in 1947.

The display features 33 original paintings and 13 sketches that were featured in Nelson's book of the same name. The exhibit opens Friday at the Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County and continues through April 16.

Nelson's oil paintings, some of them 8 feet in size, capture the grandeur and grit of the leagues that produced such legendary players as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. The artist - a two-time Caldecott Honor Award winner - shows both the on-field heroics the players accomplished and the off-field discrimination they had to endure.

Some of Nelson's images were used on stamps issued by the Post Office last year to commemorate the Negro Leagues. The award-winning book, which can be found in local libraries, was named one of the best illustrated children's books of 2008 by The New York Times.

The exhibit is currently on tour throughout the country. After it closes in Fayetteville, it will move to Chicago.

Calvin Mims, art services director at the Arts Council, said the exhibit is the third in an annual series the council has presented in collaboration with The Friends of African and African-American Art.

"We had no idea when we planned the exhibit that the U.S. Postal Service had selected him to do a commemorative stamp on the Negro Leagues," Mims said. "That sort of really kicked the excitement up into high gear because we figured we had picked a winner. It was just a home run, no pun intended."

The Arts Council has scheduled a series of events in connection with the exhibit. Nelson will appear at a grand opening Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. to talk about the exhibit and sign copies of his book.

The Observer recently spoke to Nelson by phone from his Los Angeles studio. Here are some excerpts from that conversation:

Observer: How did you come up with the idea for "We Are the Ship"?

Nelson: When I was in college, I was asked to do a painting on the Negro Leagues. It was something I knew relatively nothing about. In my research, I came across the Ken Burns documentary "Baseball." In that documentary, there was an African-American man named Buck O'Neil who told the story in such a charming and compelling way that I became hooked on the subject. That painting grew into several paintings. Over 12 years, it grew into almost 50 paintings.

Observer: Where does the title come from?

Nelson: When the leagues were formed in 1920 by Rube Foster, he made a very bold declaration that the Negro Leagues are the ship, all else are the sea. I like to explain that as the Declaration of Independence from the Major Leagues.

Observer: How has the exhibit tour been going? Have you been getting good response?

Nelson: The tour has been really popular at every stop. I attended the opening in Muskegon, Mich., the beginning of February, and it was really well received. Almost 1,000 people visited opening day, and we had 500 at the reception. They gave me a standing ovation when I got up to talk.

Observer: What did you try to convey in your paintings?

Nelson: My intention was to show the strength and integrity and dignity of the players. To use the mantra of independence in each of the paintings, in the stature of the players. It's an epic piece of history, even though a lot of people don't know about it. The players and owners formed their own league, a very successful league, out of sheer will and their love of the game of baseball.

Observer: What interests you about the Negro Leagues?

Nelson: I was interested, I think, by the story. It's a really great story of African-Americans who were barred from playing in the Major Leagues but didn't give up. Out of their love for the game and their talent for baseball, they basically created something from nothing. I think it was an inspiring story. They created the league with the intention of integrating the Major Leagues, and they were able to do that in a bold and successful way. The Negro Leagues became one of the most successful African-American business ventures up to that time.

Observer: Do you have a favorite Negro League player?

Nelson: I don't have a favorite player, I like many of them for many different Nelson: I don't have a favorite player, I like many of them for many different reasons. They all made their invaluable contributions to the game. If I have a favorite picture in the portraits, it's probably Josh Gibson. Josh Gibson is the embodiment of the triumph and the tragedy of the Negro Leagues. He looks very confident, but if you look into his eyes, you also see sadness. Josh was one of the greatest Negro League players, but he wasn't able to play in the majors. He died just before the majors were integrated. The triumph is that he helped form and sustain a successful Negro League that made it possible for African-Americans to play in the majors.

Observer: Do you think baseball has dropped in popularity among African-Americans?

Nelson: Baseball has dropped in popularity across the board. Certainly, African-Americans have not played the game in the number they did in previous decades. There has been speculation about why that is that we don't have time to go into here. My intention is really to share this great history with people of all ages, particularly young people. To share a great history and spark an interest in the great game of baseball.