Transcript from an interview with Kadir Nelson

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Kadir Nelson. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Kadir Nelson

A painter at heart

The first semester had just finished and we were getting ready to start the next semester. I was on the basketball team and I really wasn't enjoying architecture. I kind of felt that I had to do it. I'd also heard my whole life that artists, when they go to an art school, their professors will try to impose their styles on their students and make the students clones of themselves. I really didn't want to do that.

I wanted to be an individual. So that's one of the other reasons I didn't major in art or illustration. But then, after seeing a friend of mine, Joe Davis, bring his artwork into practice one day, I was blown away by how great it was and how unique it was to him. And I asked him "They let you do this type of artwork for your assignments?" And he said, not only that, they help you do what you do better. They want you to be an individual.

After seeing that, it inspired me to really follow my heart and do the art that I wanted to do. Because at heart, I wasn't an architect — I was a painter. So I decided, even if I had to starve I would become an artist and do what I really love to do. And the next day I changed my major to illustration and didn't look back.

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Wish upon a star… but do your homework, too

When I was in school I did all my work. Some of the kids wouldn't do their work when it was assigned, and they'd save it up. They wouldn't do it until the end of the semester. And their work really kind of reflected that. There wasn't much growth. But I always did my artwork on time and I got pretty good grades, so I think I built a lot of momentum and a lot of trust, I think. My professors trusted me..

By the time I finished, I felt ready to get work, to conquer the world. My mother taught me the art of visualization — visualizing your success and practicing for it. There was a poster in my math class in high school, and it said, "Wish upon a star… but do your homework, too." And that's kind of what I was doing by visualizing myself being successful at what I wanted to do. I was really kind of wishing upon a star, but I was also doing the work.

So I think as a result of doing all that it seemed like a lot of things were kind of happening for me. The first thing that I was able to do was be hired to be a visual development artist for a movie at Dreamworks. It was a brand new company then. The movie was called Amistad. And this was two weeks after I graduated.

One of my professors gave me some names of people that I might want to show my work to. And one of those people was a guy at Sports Illustrated. So I took my work up there and showed it around, and at the same time I got a job from them. So I was fortunate to really start working immediately.

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We Are the Ship

My book on the Negro Leagues has taken approximately seven years. The reason it's taken that long is because I've had to do a ton of research for each painting. I have to make sure that the uniforms are accurate — colors of uniforms, the ages of the players represented, color of the ballparks, and which ballparks they played in. Every last detail has to be accurate and, unfortunately, much the records and photographs have been lost to history. So I've had to try and fill in the gaps with knowledge of baseball or whatever I have at my reach to try to paint this picture accurately.

The book is called We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. It's the first book that I've ever written and illustrated. So I'm really excited about it. It will be published in January of 2008.

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Word of mouth

I've just been really fortunate to be in the right place at the right time in several instances. When my artwork ended up at Dreamworks, I was able to work on a movie with Debbie Allen. She introduced me to several of her friends, or people that she's worked with, who ended up buying artwork — like Denzel Washington or Jalen Rose. Spike Lee saw a painting I did in Sports Illustrated and wanted some artwork of his own.

I've just really been fortunate that most of my work has has traveled around and gotten around by word of mouth. I haven't really gone seeking out celebrities. I've just kind of run into them, so to speak.

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Ellington Was Not a Street

What I did for Ellington Was Not a Street, as far as creating that world, was from working on Amistad. I also worked on a movie called Spirit doing visual development. When you do visual development for a film, you're pretty much creating characters, mood lighting, environments, and all those skills come into play when you're doing artwork for a children's book. When it came to working on Ellington Was Not a Street, since there was not much text, I had to try to think of a narrative.

I worked together with my editor, Kevin Lewis. We went back and forth, and he thought it was pretty well finished in terms of the sketches that I did, but there were a few spots where it wasn't making sense. We had to tie it all together. So at the end of the book, he said maybe this is some kind of gathering where all these really influential people are meeting for some reason, political or not, who knows.

I didn't want it to be a political book — it's a children's book. So what I thought would work would be to make it like a big family portrait. My grandmother has a great photograph with her seven kids. And they were all there — some of them were married, and my grandmother is sitting in the middle, and it was a great photograph. I always loved that photograph. I thought, I'll use that idea and just make it a big family. And it worked — I think it did anyway.

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I think Moses is certainly the most emotional. The illustrations have the most emotion out of every book that I think I've done. I mean, I did one called Henry's Freedom Box, about Henry Box Brown. That's very emotional, but I think Moses is even more so because most of the illustrations are very dark and moody, because Harriet Tubman did most of her traveling at night.

That meant that most of the illustrations had to be dark. I was a little bit worried about that because it's a children's book. And not that you can make or would make the topic of slavery cheerful because it was anything but that. I had to keep my audience in mind, but I also had to be truthful when it came to representing Harriet Tubman and her plight. So I was trying to find a middle ground where I wasn't sugar-coating Harriet's journey. So hopefully I did that.

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Painting African-American history

I always felt that it was important to share African-American history because I enjoy it. I find it very interesting and I think that we don't really get a lot of it in our schooling. I think one of the great ways for me to learn and share is by painting it.

One of the things that I really enjoy about it is that when it comes to the artwork that I do, I'm telling human stories, and they're essentially human truths. I think that once we're able to see that — whether it's represented in artwork that shows African-Americans or other ethnic groups — as long as that essential human truth is there, we're going to understand it. So that's what I'm hoping comes across.

Everyone understands these different human emotions that we have. And when you can see it in a piece of artwork, you relate to it. You emotionally respond to it. And that's what's going to draw you to it, and that's where I aim. That's my aim when I'm creating artwork.

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Say it out loud

I would say that kids that want to draw and become artists should practice. That's really a big thing — practice, practice, practice. Every day, draw and try to become better at it. Draw things that you like, you know. That's what kids do. I drew cartoons. I drew Spiderman and Mickey Mouse when I was a kid. Then, as my interests changed, so did the subjects that I was painting.

I would recommend that kids really practice, learn to draw, and imagine themselves becoming what they want to become. Say it out loud. I want to be this, I want to be that. And then set about the business of becoming that. Just like Maya Angelou said, "Say it out loud and set about the business of becoming who you are or who you want to be."

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Recognizing talent in the classroom

Observant teachers have the opportunity to influence students who may be gifted in areas outside of the standard academic curriculum — teachers can keep their eyes open and recognize that, you know. This kid might be acting out, but he's also very talented in this area. Some of those class clowns might end up being great actors one day, or very outspoken people in whatever profession they choose. But it's just a matter of finding, or keeping your eyes open, looking at kids and saying, well he might be a knucklehead in this instance, but I see that he's very talkative or he's very artistic, or he does these different things. Maybe I can steer him in this direction.

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"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." — Victor Hugo, Les Miserables