Acclaimed artist's book gives kids valuable history   

Updated: February 25, 2009

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Josh Gibson

Courtesy Kadir Nelson

"We are the Ship" tells the stories of Negro League stars like Josh Gibson.

Acclaimed artist, illustrator and painter Kadir Nelson has a long list of collectors, including Shaq, Denzel Washington, Queen Latifah and Venus Williams. He has collaborated on projects with Will Smith and Spike Lee and was tapped by Steven Spielberg for contributions to the film "Amistad."

Somehow, none of that fanfare seems to unsettle the docile composure of the 33-year-old. He's too busy at his home in San Diego, spending time with his wife and their three children while also publishing a picture book of the Obama election, painting portraits of Alex Rodriguez and John Coltrane, or illustrating -- and writing -- his first children's book, "We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball."

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Seems like the only thing the man's incapable of is delegation.

But Nelson's many hats have almost hung themselves atop his head. "I wasn't originally going to write it," he says of the children's book that took more than seven years to finish.

"I had been doing the research and the paintings, but I'm not a writer. I had high hopes for writers who I hoped would write it, but they were so very busy that it was difficult to get on their calendars. The more that I learned about the history of the Negro Leagues, and the more personal stories I discovered, the more clarity I had for the vision of how I wanted the book to be written. Not being a writer myself, I didn't feel that it was appropriate for me to tell a writer how, or what, to write. Finally, I just asked my editor if it was OK for me to give it a shot and they really liked the idea. We just ran with it."

What followed was the critically lauded release of "We Are the Ship," which became a New York Times best seller. It is the first book Nelson had both illustrated and written, and it serves as a remarkable feather in the artist's already comprehensive cap.

Rube Foster

Courtesy Kadir Nelson

Rube Foster (fourth from right) was a star pitcher in early black leagues before establishing the Negro National League in 1920.

Since graduating from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, the history-hungry Nelson had been digging up the details of the Negro Leagues. In 2000, Nelson officially began work on the book, and it finally appeared on bookshelves in January 2008.

Nelson's motivation and tireless dedication to researching every detail was remarkably simple. He has an insatiable fascination with history.

"I believe I have always been an artist but I love history," he says. "There are parts of history that are so compelling to me that I want to learn about it and I want to share it and the way that I do that has been through creating artwork of some kind. I love learning. I love new knowledge and discovering truth. I love explaining that another way."

Nelson believes that the best way to learn something is to illustrate it, since extensive research is necessary to unearth the details that enable him to accurately recreate. And Nelson doesn't skimp on the details. In fact, he posed for all the paintings in "We Are the Ship" himself. "I have a replica baseball uniform that I bought from Ebbets Field [Flannels]," Nelson said. "I would set my camera up and shoot myself in the uniform doing different things, then look at the pictures to see all the intricacies. It helped me better understand and paint them later."

All of this effort was necessary to share the truth about this dynamic period of time and the human stories behind the Negro League players.

Kansas City Monarchs

Courtesy Kadir Nelson

Led by Satchel Paige, the Kansas City Monarchs were a Negro Leagues powerhouse.

"It was this incredible platform for players all on its own, but it was created ultimately as a vehicle to integrate Major League Baseball. It achieved that goal, just as it set out, but I think it was bittersweet," Nelson said.

"While it allowed so many great players to go on to play on the grandest stage, there was this time when they were playing the game that they loved and they were enjoying it. The fact that [the Negro Leagues] came to an end by achieving its goal is a bittersweet legacy in a way. That's a part of something I hope to share through with attention to the emotions and expressive details."

When Rube Foster established the Negro National League in 1920, he issued a poignant statement summing up his stance with, "We are the ship; all else the sea." That sentiment became the namesake of Nelson's expression.

"I had a different working title for six years but by the time the book evolved it didn't really fit anymore," he said. "My editor suggested I choose a more poetic title so we had discussions and looked through quotes. Eventually, this was chosen because it is so free, and so optimistic and so American. It sounds to me like the voice of the players themselves. It celebrates their spirit and the emotion of Negro League baseball."

Nelson says the most fulfilling part about the book's honors has been listening to folks engage in the conversation about this historic movement and the people who made it possible.

"History is so important to the present and our future," he said. "Those players -- Buck O'Neil, Jackie Robinson, Buck Leonard, Satchel Paige, Turkey Stearnes, Cool Papa Bell -- those were wonderful characters who historically conceived a baseball league and then gave it life. I want to celebrate that. I wanted to share this story. If this ends up teaching people history, then I think it's the better for it; but for me, it has always been about wanting to learn. That's where it begins. Learning about compelling truth comes first, after that, it's no wonder that I want to share it every way I can."

Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at marybuckheit@hotmail.com.


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