Capturing The African American Experience Through Illustrations

November 30, 2010  |  

By Brittany Hutson

It sounds repetitive and maybe a little cliché but when you stay committed and remain truthful to yourself and your passion, you can reap invaluable rewards. Just ask Kadir Nelson. For a little over a decade, the San-Diego based illustrator has been capturing the beauty of the African American experience while attracting everyone from big-name corporations to celebrities. His talent caught the eye of one of the most influential people of this generation, which resulted in his most recent and infamous work of art yet.

The seeds for the project were planted around 2000 when Nelson was commissioned to do a number of paintings of singer Marvin Gaye. These paintings would be hung in Gaye’s old recording studio in Hollywood, where artists such as Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson recorded.

“I’m told [Michael] would visit the studio, not to record, but to look at the painting, which was really, really flattering,” said Nelson.

One afternoon, Nelson received a call from Jackson himself, who told Nelson how much he enjoyed the Marvin Gaye paintings and wanted to commission Nelson to do a painting of him.

“He said ‘I want it to be bigger’,” chuckled Nelson.

Unfortunately, the two wouldn’t get the chance to collaborate on the project.  Their paths separated and Jackson passed away in 2009.

After Jackson’s death, Nelson received a call from the gentleman who commissioned the Marvin Gaye paintings. This same guy was also Michael’s manager, unbeknownst to Nelson at the time.

“He said, ‘it’s time for you to do that painting that Michael wanted you to do.”

Nelson dedicated nearly a year to painting what is now the cover art for Jackson’s first posthumous release titled Michael, which will be in stores next month. The painting pays homage to the greatest moments of the King of Pop’s solo career. It features a medley of classic MJ images, from his Off the Wall-era tux to his signature red leather jacket from his video for “Beat It.” The painting also includes the image of Jackson from his 1987 hit album Bad and him in his custom-made tuxedo jacket, pink shirt and red bowtie that he wore in the “Billie Jean” video.

“I talked to his brother Jackie and he would help me fill in the gaps of the story I didn’t know,” said Nelson. “It was a really great project and unfortunately, Michael hasn’t been able to see it but the people around him really liked the painting.”

Not too shabby for a guy who once thought he would make a career out of playing basketball. Born in Washington, D.C., Nelson had a love of both basketball and art as a child. Though he originally focused on being a basketball player as his primary career, he never strayed too far from his love affair with art. He started taking his passion seriously around age 11 and spent time apprenticing for his uncle, a fine artist and high school art instructor.

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