Kadir Nelson: The Artist Behind the Stamp

07.14.2020
Blog

By Ateret Sultan-Reisler, Collections Intern

As an artist and illustrator, Kadir Nelson loyally promotes African American figures throughout the history of the United States and contemporary times. He graduated with a BFA with honors from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.[1] Currently, he creates his poignant artwork in Los Angeles, California.[2] Nelson designs works for institutions such as DreamWorks Pictures, National Geographic, HBO, Nike, Disney, Hennessy, and Sony Music. The New Yorker magazine often features the art of Kadir Nelson as well.[3] Nelson illustrates children’s books that often surround a moment in the history of African Americans in the United States. He depicts strong and determined individuals in his artwork and illustrations. Nelson wrote and illustrated the widely popular We are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. He received the Hamilton King Award, the 2020 Caldecott Medal, and Coretta Scott King Award for illustration in 2009.[4] Not only does Nelson create large-scale artwork, he also garners attention for illustrating 1-inch stamps.

Nelson designs stamps for the United States Postal Service and portrayed notable figures such as Marvin Gaye, Althea Gibson, and Wilt Chamberlain. Artwork for stamps of players from the Negro Leagues of Baseball and from the Major Leagues of Baseball will be featured in the National Postal Museum’s upcoming exhibition Baseball: America’s Home Run. In his 44c Negro Leagues of Baseball pane of 20 stamps, Nelson honors the all-black professional baseball leagues of 1920 – 1960.[5] The league was extremely accomplished, and popular, with a strong fan base. Integrating the Negro Leagues of Baseball with the Major Leagues of Baseball further sparked integration of professional sports in the United States.

A rectangular painting of a baseball stadium with a player sliding into homeplate as a catcher awaits a flying ball with his glove outstretched. The umpire gestures “safe” with his arms. In the right foreground, a painting of a man is positioned in front of the dynamic scene. He is dressed in a suit with a cap.
Kadir Nelson, Negro Leagues Baseball, 2010, National Postal Museum.
  Courtesy of United States Postal Service, Postmaster General’s Collection.

Nelson presents an action-packed moment of a player sliding into home plate while the opposing player reaches to catch the ball. The umpire stands with his arms spread straight out on either side, one can almost hear him yell, “Safe!” On the right-hand side of the image, Andrew ‘Rube’ Foster is depicted from the shoulders up and sporting a flat cap. Folks laud Foster for working diligently to found the Negro Leagues of Baseball.[6] Although this painting was created as one work, the artwork was separated into two separate stamps.

Nelson represents baseball players from the Major Leagues of Baseball on All-Stars Stamps in 2012 including giants such as Larry Doby, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Willie Stargell.

A close-up painting of baseball player Larry Doby’s upper body in a baseball uniform. He grips a baseball bat and stares determinedly forward in anticipation of a pitch. An abstract depiction of a stadium crowd in green hues is visible in the background.
Kadir Nelson, Larry Doby, 2009, National Postal Museum.
Courtesy of United States Postal Service, Postmaster General’s Collection.

In Larry Doby’s work, he wears his Cleveland Indians uniform with accent stripes of red and blue. Nelson captures the determination in Doby’s eyes and strong stance. Doby clutches the bat tightly and prepares to take on the pitcher. His figure stands out predominantly from the abstract green hued background. The careful use of lighting draws the eye to his face, across to his hands and his baseball bat. When Doby joined the Cleveland Indians in July 1947, he was the second African American player in Major League Baseball and the first in the American League.[7] Previously, in the Nero Leagues of Baseball he played for the Newark Eagles, played in two East-West All Star games, and went to the Negro League World Series in 1946. After a very successful playing career, Doby went on to be the manager for the Chicago White Sox.[8]

Through Nelson’s artwork, he portrays strong and dedicated African American baseball players throughout their time in both the Negro Leagues of Baseball and in the Major Leagues of Baseball. He commits himself to promote lesser-known histories of important figures in his artwork and illustrations. Through Nelson’s books, artwork, and stamp illustrations of baseball players he inspires viewers to learn more about the history of the Negro Leagues of Baseball. Nelson’s artwork surrounding African American baseball players throughout history causes viewers to reflect on the strides these players have made to do what they love. We reflect on notions of African American representation in the Major League Baseball and professional sports. Knowing more about United States history can help us make informed choices for a better present and future.

 

Photograph of smiling young woman posing outside.
Ateret Sultan-Reisler, National Postal Museum Collections Intern

Ateret Sultan-Reisler studied Art History and Psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She interned at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and is an Educator at the College Park Aviation Museum. Ateret enjoys running in Rock Creek Park, watercolor painting, and exploring coffee shops in DC.She looks forward to starting a master’s program in the History of Art & Architecture Boston University in the fall of 2020.

 

Sources

“Doby, Lawrence (Larry) E.,” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Case Western Reserve University, accessed June 25, 2020, https://case.edu/ech/articles/d/doby-lawrence-larry-e

"Hitting A Home Run On Stamps For Pioneering Baseball League." 2010. United States Postal Service. https://about.usps.com/news/state-releases/tn/2010/tn_2010_0825.htm

“Major League All-Stars Stamps Dedicated in Cooperstown Today.” 2012. United States Postal Service. https://about.usps.com/news/national-releases/2012/pr12_085.htm

Nelson, Kadir. “The Artist.” KadirNelson.com. Accessed May 27, 2020. https://www.kadirnelson.com/about.


[1] Nelson, Kadir. “The Artist.” KadirNelson.com. Accessed May 27, 2020. https://www.kadirnelson.com/about.

[2] Nelson, Kadir. “The Artist.” KadirNelson.com.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] "Hitting A Home Run On Stamps For Pioneering Baseball League". 2010. United States Postal Service.

[6] "Hitting A Home Run On Stamps For Pioneering Baseball League".

[7] “Doby, Lawrence (Larry) E.,” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Case Western Reserve University, accessed June 25, 2020, https://case.edu/ech/articles/d/doby-lawrence-larry-e

[8] “Doby, Lawrence (Larry) E.,” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Case Western Reserve University.