And Interview with Kadir Nelson The Children’s Book Review
KADIR NELSON is the acclaimed illustrator of Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (Hyperion, 2006) and Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad (Scholastic, 2007), both Caldecott Honor books. His other titles include We Are the Ship (Hyperion, 2008), a Robert F. Sibert Medal winner and Coretta Scott King Award recipient, and Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African-Americans (Balzer + Bray, 2011).
August 28th, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech. In celebration of the Civil Rights Movement, we have interviewed Kadir Nelson about his dazzling picture book I Have a Dream (Random House, 2012), his formula for researching historical figures, and how families can nurture artistic creativity in the home. Read and dream on, my friends …
Bianca Schulze: You are known for creating memorable books and illustrations for young readers, giving them insight into the role that African-Americans have played in shaping American History. What does it mean to you to have illustrated the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech from one of the greatest leaders in the African-American Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Kadir Nelson: It’s a great thrill to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s speech with this book. Illustrating Dr. King’s powerful words was a great honor and a daunting challenge as I was given the task of bringing Dr. King’s dream to life in a new way. It took a little while, but I was finally able to settle my nerves and begin painting.
BS: It’s easy to imagine that you played the “I Have a Dream” speech over and over as you created magnificent illustrations in your art studio or creative space. If my imagination has served me well, how often do you think you have listened to the speech?
KN: I can’t honestly say how many times I listened to the speech, but I do remember really taking my time with it—listening very closely to Dr. King’s voice as it rose and fell; paying attention to the emotion behind every word as he takes the listener through his dream; building and climbing all the way to a crescendo. It’s very powerful.
BS: Is there a particular line or segment that resonates with you the most? Was the painting that represents this line or segment harder or easier to create because of its impact on you?
KN: I don’t really have a favorite line in the speech. The speech is something like a great book, a movie, or song. It has a wonderful rhythm and an enduring resonance. I enjoy the whole thing. The toughest part of illustrating the speech was coming up with images that captured the more conceptual, non-literal parts of the speech. It just took some time to figure them out.
BS: You have received many accolades for your magnificent oil painting illustrations. It is not surprising, but definitely awe-inspiring, that you have made a powerful and moving speech even richer. When you are illustrating work on historical figures, would you say that words inspire your artwork, or do visual cues give rise to your creative expressions?
KN: I’m inspired by a combination of both words and visual cues. As I read the text, visuals and/or feelings come to mind, and I aim to capture them both on canvas for the reader.
BS: While creating your pictures for a specific book, you work chronologically from the first image to the last. Is this a process that you were taught during college or just something that feels right to you?
KN: It’s just the way that is most natural for me to work. I want to feel the story’s arc as I’m working and not get things out of order.
BS: Is there a formula behind your research of historical figures?
KN: My formula is pretty simple. I read a biography or two. Pour over photographs, videos, documentaries, etc. I look for as much about the subject as possible to get a firm grasp of who they are. Sometimes I’ll even visit their old stomping grounds and take tons of photographs. I want to walk in their shoes and put my experience of them on the page.
BS: In the context of writing versus illustrating, I read that you feel “all creativity comes from the same place.” Where is this place? How do you get there? Can anyone get there? What should aspiring artists pack for the journey?
KN: All creativity comes from inside, and everyone has access to their deeper selves. For me, it’s a matter of settling my nerves and relaxing into my subject. It may involve stalling, listening to music, cleaning the studio, etc. No need to pack! “Just get on board!”
BS: It’s clear that you have always loved to draw. If you could name one emotion, what do you feel when you make art?
BS: You knew early on that you wanted to be an artist. Beyond encouraging young aspiring artists to dream big and follow their heart’s desire, how do you recommend families nurture artistic creativity in the home? Was art nurtured within your own family setting?
KN: My mother always had a stack of blank paper and plenty of crayons and pencils for us to draw with. As a very young kid, that was all I needed. Later on, I went to study with my uncle, who’s an artist and an art teacher. That was key for me to become more serious about being an artist. My parents were also very supportive and encouraging. Whatever creative path I chose to follow, I had their full support. That was so very important.
BS: How did you land your first job as a visual development artist for the feature film AMISTAD, directed by Steven Spielberg? That’s an outstanding feat!
KN: It’s kind of a long story, but I did a job I did for a music executive at Polygram (now Universal) Distribution. The executive, Al Jones, liked my work and sent my portfolio to a friend at another record company in Los Angeles, who shared it with a production assistant at Dreamworks. He then shared it with the higher-ups. Shortly after that, I found myself meeting with the production designer Rick Carter and the producer Debbie Allen and the rest is history. It was an incredible journey.
BS: What should we expect to see from you next?
KN: I just finished a book called Baby Bear that will be published in the spring of 2014 by Balzer + Bray. It’s about a little bear lost in the wilderness and trying to find his way home. Elder animals of the forest lovingly guide him as he slowly but surely makes his way. I also recently finished painting the album cover art for recording artist Drake which will be released in September!
Add these books to your collection: Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad, We Are the Ship, Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African-Americans, and I Have a Dream.
Pre-order: Baby Bear
For more information on Kadir Nelson and his books, visit: kadirnelson.com