Celebrated illustrator Kadir Nelson began his career as the lead conceptual artist for Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated 1997 feature, “Amistad.” His works are usually figurative paintings that focus on historical narrative and heroic subjects in American culture. Nelson’s art is often informed by the Old Masters like Henry O. Tanner and displays a realistic technique that incorporates modern urban realism and masterly works of turn-of-the-century American painters.
“There are hundreds of artists, but my style has been heavily influenced by Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, Ernie Barnes, Dean Cornwell, Charles White,” explained Nelson, 44. “I like the style, I like their technique, the emotion that comes through their work, the light and shadow, the drama, the use of color and storytelling.”
Nelson has created artwork for a host of distinguished clients including Sports Illustrated, the Coca-Cola Co., the U.S. Postal Service and Major League Baseball. He has also authored and illustrated more than 30 picture books, including several award-winning New York Times-bestselling titles, “We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball” and “Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans.”
Nelson shared a statement that discussed the strong African-American themes of his art. “It’s just a search for truth,” writes Nelson. “I think all of us have to find our own truths, and for me, this is part of it. When we learn about history in school or in books, we don’t always get the whole truth, and that’s kind of what I’m searching for. So when I do a book on the Negro baseball leagues or Harriet Tubman or what have you, it’s really a matter of trying to learn that truth for myself. When I learn something and am inspired by it, it motivates me to share it with other people. Children’s books are a really great platform that allows me to do that.”
In December 2013, Nelson’s striking painting of the late Nelson Mandela was featured on the cover of the New Yorker magazine. Within months, Nelson was asked by the magazine to create artwork for the magazine’s 90th anniversary cover in February 2015. He also created artwork for Michael Jackson’s posthumously released album, “Michael,” and recording artist Drake’s “Nothing Was the Same.”
Nelson currently exhibits his artwork in the private and public permanent collections of several notable institutions, including the Muskegon Museum of Art, the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the International Olympic Committee and the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I feel that art’s highest function is that of a mirror, reflecting the innermost beauty and divinity of the human spirit, and is most effective when it calls the viewer to remember one’s highest self,” Nelson says on his website. “I choose subject matter that has emotional and spiritual resonance and focuses on the journey of the hero as it relates to the personal and collective stories of people.”
Nelson will discuss his art during the University of the Arts’ Edith J. and Roy B. Simpson Master Class Series on Monday from 6-7 p.m. in the Caplan Recital Hall at the University of the Arts, 211 S. Broad St. The talk is free and open to the public. RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org.