Fort Wayne Museum of Art swings for a hit with baseball art exhibit

The Fort Wayne Museum of Art wants some of its exhibits to address social issues, and officials also had been looking for a way to appeal to the many sports fans in the Fort Wayne area. The museum hopes to round the bases with "We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball," which opens Friday with a reception and guest lecture by author and baseball expert Phil S. Dixon. The exhibit, which continues through Oct. 16, features about 50 paintings by artist Kadir Nelson of San Diego, who spent years researching the Negro Leagues -- professional baseball leagues for African-American players who were not allowed to play Major League Baseball. The Negro Leagues faded away after Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, opening the door for other black baseball players to join Major League teams. The Museum of Art previously worked with Nelson on an exhibit of his work as part of an exhibit series highlighting children's book illustrators, said Charles Shepard III, museum executive director. When museum staff learned the art for Nelson's Corretta Scott King Award-winning children's book, "We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball," would be touring, they saw it as a chance to explore racial prejudice in a more widely accessible way. "These things are generally handled gently but wisely because of the child audience," Shepard said of children's books that involve social issues. Museum officials also loved Nelson's art work. "These are full-scale oil paintings done in the studio," said Amanda Martin, the museum's deputy director for administration and programs. Nelson's art is inspired by historic photos he studied, Martin said. He also gathered historic uniforms, baseball equipment and memorabilia, put himself in them and photographed himself to serve as a model for his paintings. In all, Nelson devoted about seven years to researching the Negro Leagues, writing his book and painting the art to illustrate it, Martin said, offering exhibit goers a unique perspective on America's pasttime.