Saturday, January 19, 2013

Kadir Nelson's life is just as inspiring as his books

"I want to live abundantly and the only way to do that is to be joyful in what you do." - Kadir Nelson

Last night I went to one of the most enjoyable book events I have ever attended. Author and illustrator Kadir Nelson came to Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor and gave a wonderful talk about his art and his writing.

I can't stop staring at this stunning book cover
If you are not familiar with Kadir's name, you are most likely familiar with his work as he is responsible for the cover art for the Michael Jackson posthumous album, MichaelHe has also designed several stamps for the U.S. Postal Service. More importantly though, if you're not familiar with Nelson's work, you need to get familiar with it. His illustrations are some of the most beautiful, emotionally-laden pieces of art I have ever had the pleasure of viewing, often moving me to tears. He captures the human spirit like no other illustrator I have seen before. That is most clearly evident with his newest picture books, Nelson Mandela and I Have a Dream. I have been saying for a while now that I liken Kadir Nelson to a visual-arts version of Langston Hughes. Hughes has always been one of my favorite poets because he makes me understand the African American experience like no other writer I have ever read. And he does it in so few words. Nelson's work is not unlike Hughes because he helps me see the African American experience through the eyes of the people he paints and I, in turn, despite being a thirty-something white woman, can feel that through his stunning brushstrokes.

But please don't assume that because Kadir writes and illustrates picture books that they are only for kids. Pick up a book like We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball or Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, and you will quickly realize that his work transcends age groups.

The first thing one notices about Kadir when he walks into a room is his calm and gentle demeanor. Someone jokingly asked him during the Q&A portion of the evening if he ever freaks out about anything because his presence is just so serene. His response was that it's more comfortable to be peaceful. How apropos that he illustrated Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech since he and King appear to be kindred spirits. He further adds to his serene persona by imploring the importance of choosing a career path because you love it, not because it will make you the most money. He shared his story of beginning college as an architecture major, and even though he loved to paint and draw, he chose architecture instead because he felt like that would lead him to a "real job." Since he wasn't a fan of starving, he didn't think being an artist was a practical career path. But architecture proved to be a path that was clearly not meant for him, so he decided to follow passion rather than practicality. That was clearly the right choice and one that continues to make a solid case for doing what you love instead of doing what will make you more money or doing something just to make your parents happy.
It's amazing how with some authors I can go up to and immediately strike up a conversation and with others I can't seem to find any way to get my mouth to open to articulate anything remotely intelligent. When I went up to get my books signed yesterday evening, my reaction to Kadir was unfortunately the latter. I didn't know what to say other than "When I look at your work, it moves me to tears." Even though I wanted to, I couldn't say anything else. I was just so dumbstruck. I was thankfully coherent enough to ask if he would be so kind as to take a picture with me and my friend Kaitlin who came with me. She thankfully could articulate her admiration much better than I could, declaring that her students love Heart and Soul and are equally as dumbstruck as I apparently am by the beautiful artwork inside.
My friend Kaitlin and me with Kadir Nelson: our admiration knows no bounds

1 comment:

  1. What a stud! Great blog post, Beth! Wonderful summary of his work and his book talk. :)