Propped up on easels, Kadir Nelson’s large canvases give his Los Angeles loft the look of an upscale urban art gallery. A seven-foot by four-and-a-half-foot portrait of Michael Jackson dominates one wall of the airy, open space. A replica of the original commissioned by Jackson, it was painted after his death and appeared on the cover of Michael, Jackson’s first posthumous album release. Sunlight streams through a panel of windows as puggles Midnight and Dakota nap on sanctioned rugs. A bicycle tree sprouts from the smooth concrete floor, and atop a large armoire sits an array of guitars belonging to Nelson’s girlfriend, Jungmiwha, a social justice scholar, political sociologist and avid philanthropist.
Nelson relocated to Los Angeles from San Diego five years ago and now lives and works in an area near downtown that is fast becoming a center of the arts. He has built an award-winning career on his portraits of cultural and music icons like Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Shirley Chisholm, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King and, perhaps most famously among today’s generation, Drake, for the 2013 Nothing Was the Same album cover, which garnered a lot of press attention. Nelson’s work has been exhibited throughout the country and can be found in the private collections of a who’s-who of music, film and sports figures. His clients include Sports Illustrated, Major League Baseball, the Coca-Cola Company and the United States Postal Service.
At the heart of Nelson’s work is a light that emanates outward, giving form and life to characters so real, rendered in such detail, that they appear as if they could step out of his paintings. He brings a modern sensibility to his art, but uses old-school methods to achieve the luminous quality found in his oil paintings. He meticulously builds up layers of oil paint, starting with pencil, then moving to oil wash, taking anywhere from one to three weeks to finish a canvas.
Nelson began drawing when he was about three years old. “I drew what kids like: cartoon characters and animals. I copied what I saw in comic books. As I grew older, I started drawing other things I was into—basketball, music, Egyptology,” he says.
Both his parents drew, but neither pursued the arts. “In college, my mother was discouraged from following that career path because it wasn’t very practical. Not many people knew you could make a living as an artist,” he says. “Instead, she became an engineer, but she always regretted not following her dreams. When she saw that I liked to draw as a little kid, she encouraged my gift. She always gave me plenty of paper.”
The summer he turned ten years old, his mother sent him to study with his uncle Michael Morris, an artist and art teacher. Morris recognized and encouraged his nephew’s talent. “He told my mother that I might be really serious about art,” Nelson remembers. “He gave me a really strong art foundation. We pretty much drew and painted all summer, and he taught me about perspective, lighting and color theory. When I went home, he sent me a huge box of art supplies—all the things we had used over the summer.
“I went back to study with him when I was sixteen, and during that summer, he taught me to paint with oils,” he relates. Around that time, Morris had learned a new way to paint with oils using glazes. “I painted in acrylic at the time, so I hated oils at first. I was only with my uncle for two weeks. We did two oil paintings; I went home thinking I’d never use oils.” But as soon as Nelson began painting with acrylic again, he decided he preferred oil paints after all.
Straight out of his degree program at Pratt Institute, he got a job at DreamWorks SKG. “I worked on the feature film Amistad for six months as a visual development artist, and I loved every minute of it,” Nelson relates. “It was a chance to work on a film directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by Debbie Allen, two people I’d looked up to for many years. A few other artists and I were charged with creating the look, feel and palette of the film with the intention of convincing Steven to direct the film. We created a ton of art that told the story through paintings. Debbie Allen and production designer Rick Carter assembled three large portfolios to present to Steven.”
Amistad production designer Rick Carter recalls, “I wanted an illustrator who could bring a greater depth to the imagery I was looking for, to inspire the movie’s production design. It was not so much the details of the historically correct props; it was essentially a story that Goya, the painter, would have been able to tell with his imagery. Amistad’s bigger story is an enormous tragedy: the Middle Passage and what happened to so many people. That was what Kadir conveyed in his art—it had such elegance and refinement to it.”
The Middle Passage is the stage of the slave trade during which Africans were transported across the Atlantic to the West Indies in deplorable conditions. Spielberg hadn’t yet agreed to direct, hesitant because of the sensitive subject matter.
“Spielberg was very pleased with our work and signed on to direct,” Nelson says. “I did something similar for the animated feature Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. It was on these two films that I learned the art of collaboration. It takes hundreds of people to make a film. It was an important learning experience for me.”
“He created real art in the service of a cinematic effort,” Carter says on Nelson’s work for Amistad. “He paints these light, lean people who are so powerful and vibrant. Everything he does is heroic in the romantic sense, aspiring to a higher presentation of our existence. There is continuity to everything he does.”
When a commissioned project introduced Nelson to the Negro League baseball teams, their rich, sad history became a series of paintings that turned into the book We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, which Nelson authored when none of the writers he wanted were available. The title netted him Coretta Scott King and Robert F. Sibert awards and paved the way for future titles, including Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans and a picture book biography of Nelson Mandela. All these projects have brought him to the attention of art directors across a spectrum of businesses.
“Kadir Nelson stands out among the artists I work with: He’s more of a painter than most,” explains Françoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker. “Covers for The New Yorker are stand-alone works. There’s no cover line to tell you the topic. The image has to engage the reader. It’s hard to make paintings that work well on the cover—paintings tend to be more self-contained than drawings. Paintings have more authority at first glance, but that can make them less immediate.
“In Kadir’s Nelson Mandela cover and Eustace Tilley cover, we see one of the rare instances where the idea is in the execution—where a sketch or a loose drawing of the same subject wouldn’t have worked,” Mouly continues. “Kadir carefully balances the form and the content—it’s part of his magic that the paintings’ subjects grab you, and that’s why he was such a good fit for the 90th anniversary. When I chose nine artists to celebrate our 90 years with nine covers, I knew that an image by Kadir would both assert itself and make the reader think about or rethink the magazine’s mascot. We got an image that’s so definitive, it expands the vocabulary of what looks and feels right on The New Yorker’s cover.”
To date, Nelson has illustrated more than 30 children’s books, including some he has authored. “Children’s books are most people’s introduction to art,” he states. “We need diverse books.” At present, he’s working on a book about the American flag in history, equating its design elements to our native landscape. Canvases faintly lined with pencil are stacked against a table, illuminated by the strong Los Angeles light, ready for the next step in their evolution into vibrant works of art spanning our history and hopes. One can only imagine what he will next bring to life. ca