Painter Kadir Nelson has illustrated nearly 20 books, but is probably best-known for his paintings of the Negro Leagues, some of which appear in his award-winning book, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. And a few weeks ago, the United States Postal Service released a set of two stamps, illustrated by Nelson, honoring Hall of Famer Rube Foster and the Negro Leagues.
Last week, Nelson answered a few questions via e-mail ...
Neyer: When (and how) did you become intrigued with Negro Leagues baseball to the point where you decided to devote a great deal of your work to the subject?
Nelson: I was asked to do a painting on the subject while in college during the early nineties. Upon doing a bit of research, I became hooked on the history of the leagues and wanted to learn more. After completing the painting I was inspired to paint several more and didn't stop until about 14 years later, after having completed almost 50 paintings on the subject.
Neyer: I'll never forget the first time I saw your work. I was visiting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Just next door was a gallery, and upon walking in I was confronted by your painting of (I believe) Willie Foster standing on the streets of Pittsburgh. What struck me then -- and still does today, when I look at that and other paintings -- is the seriousness of your subjects. Not only does Foster look serious; so do the four little boys standing with him. The black players in your paintings aren't clowns -- as they've sometimes been depicted in the mass media -- and it's not even clear that they're enjoying themselves, as they rarely (if ever) smile. May we assume you put a great deal of thought into this?
Nelson: I studied a great number of baseball photographs from the period, both from the Negro Leagues and Majors. I found that in most of the portraits of players were not smiling. Perhaps it was because of slow speed photographic technology of the period which didn't allow for much movement, or perhaps it was the fact that baseball was serious business to the players and it showed on their faces. It was their bread and butter. Whatever the reason, I've never been very fond of painting many smiling faces and this subject allowed for very serious portraits. I wanted to portray them as the strong and heroic people they were, and that's not easy to do if they are smiling.
Neyer: You've now illustrated (and written) a history of Negro League Baseball, you've illustrated a book about Jackie Robinson (written by his daughter), and as we speak, many thousands of letters and cards bearing your stamps are crisscrossing the country. Is there anything in baseball that you haven't done, but want to?
Nelson: I'd like to do a few more Negro League paintings. I just have to find the time to do them. For now, I'm concentrating on creating paintings for my next book on American history. It's keeping quite busy, but I'm loving every minute of it.