TheGrio's 100: Kadir Nelson, drawing from the past to illustrate hope

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You may not know Kadir Nelson by name, but you’ve probably come across his work. Whether you saw a commemorative U.S. postage stamp or a scene from a big-budget Hollywood film, this San-Diego-based artist and illustrator uses his art to record the black experience, and he’s leaving an observable mark along the way.

Born in Washington D.C., Nelson originally wanted to be a basketball player. But art has always played a central role in his life.

“It’s part of my DNA,” he says on his website. With the help of his uncle and his high school art teacher, Nelson began painting in oils at 16 and entered and won several art competitions, which led to an art scholarship to study at New York’s Pratt Institute. Upon graduation, Nelson received commissions from major corporations like Coca-Cola and Major League Baseball.

Not only can his work be seen in museums around the world, Nelson has had great luck bringing his art to the attention of Hollywood. He has worked with major production studios like DreamWorks, where he served as the lead conceptual artist for Steven Spielberg’s Amistad and the Academy-Award nominated, animated feature Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. His paintings have also decorated the sets of television sitcoms The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and The Jamie Foxx Show, and in feature films like Friday, Set It Off and The Beauty Shop.

But Nelson may be best known for his artistic collaborations with well-known children’s authors. He worked on his first book Brothers of the Knight in 1999, followed by Dancing with the Wings in 2000, with actress and choreographer Debbie Allen. He’s gone on to illustrate kids’ books written by other black members of the entertainment and arts elite, including Spike and Tonya Lee’s Please, Puppy, Please and Ntozake Shange’s, Coretta Scott King Award-winning book, Ellington Was Not A Street. Nelson teamed up with actor Will Smith for Just the Two of Us, a picture book adaptation of Smith’s hit song of the same name, which garnered Nelson a NAACP Image Award. In 2008, he authored and illustrated his own book, We Are The Ship: The Story of the Negro League.

“My focus is to create images of people who demonstrate a sense of hope and nobility,” Nelson says on his website. “I want to show the strength and integrity of the human being and the human spirit.”