One of the fundamental challenges for successful stamp design is selecting the right artist. Stamp art is inherently difficult; standards are very high, and the canvas is very small. Ideally, the artist will fit the project like a hand in a glove.
In this case, a baseball glove.
While an art student at the prestigious Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1995, Kadir Nelson was commissioned to do a painting on Negro Leagues baseball. He dove in to research the topic, not knowing that the journey would continue for years and grow into several paintings.
Nelson’s work on the subject was widely celebrated in such venues as Sports Illustrated magazine. This acclaim convinced him to expand the project into an illustrated book, which he also wrote, titled We Are the Ship — based on the slogan for the Negro National League: “We are the ship, all else the sea.“
The long-term contributions the Negro Leagues made to baseball and to American society far exceeded tickets sales or league revenues. (View more information on the history and impact of Negro Leagues baseball.) Yet for years, those contributions received scant attention — a mistake that officials at the U.S. Postal Service had no intention of committing. So they pursued a stamp release dedicated to the subject, originally planning a pane of stamps featuring four different players. But three of the best-known players — Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Jackie Robinson — had already appeared as part of the 2000 Legends of Baseball issuance.
“There were so many great people involved in Negro Leagues baseball,” says Terry McCaffrey, manager of stamp development for the Postal Service, “that we decided it would not do justice to concentrate on just four players.” Some other approach was needed.
Enter Kadir Nelson.
When the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee staged its quarterly meeting in Nelson's hometown of San Diego in 2006, he had two stamp illustrations in the works — activist Anna Julia Cooper and author Richard Wright, both released in 2009. But Nelson seized the opportunity to meet with stamp art directors and show more of his work. He chose to include many illustrations from his book, which were received with an enthusiasm he could not have predicted.
In a typical artist meeting, the goal is to find a style of work that will complement a given stamp subject. But this time, though Nelson did not know about the Negro Leagues project or the struggles to produce it, he presented works that matched not only style but also subject.
“I was blown away by the beauty of the images,” McCaffrey says. “When we decided to change the direction of the project, we knew he would be the perfect artist.”
Nelson’s distinctive style allowed exploration of a new approach. His artwork on We Are the Ship shows vivid, almost exaggerated forms rendered at the peak of action. Dramatic light and angles contribute to images that feel like baseball of an earlier era.
While many artists photograph models in particular poses to guide their production of artwork, Nelson posed for such photos himself. Using himself as a model gave maximum flexibility, avoiding the need to hire models or accommodate their schedules.
Working with art director Howard Paine to develop a look for the project, Nelson settled on an unusual approach: a se tenant, with a continuous image stretching across both stamps.
Early sketches were fairly generic baseball scenes, but Nelson and Paine refined the look. Now, in the left-hand stamp we feel the excitement of the game — dust flying as a player slides into home. And in the right-hand stamp we see a packed stadium, with the foreground featuring Andrew “Rube” Foster, founder of the first successful Negro baseball league.
Each stamp is powerful in itself, but together they tell the full story of a league that revolutionized the game of baseball.
When the artist and the subject are a perfect fit, the stamp design may be a double, but the net effect is a home run.
Read more about Kadir Nelson and his other stamp designs.
Kadir NelsonSan Diego CA
Kadir Nelson began drawing at the age of three, displaying artistic acumen before he could write or spell. “I have always been an artist,” Nelson explains. “It’s part of my DNA.” At age 11, Nelson became an apprentice to his uncle Michael Morris, an artist and art instructor. “My uncle gave me my foundation in art,” says the artist. Nelson experimented with several different media and later began painting in oils at age 16 under the encouragement and tutelage of his uncle and his high school art teacher. He began entering his paintings in art competitions and ultimately won an art scholarship to study at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. Upon graduating with honors, Nelson began his professional career as an artist, publishing his work and receiving commissions from publishers and production studios such as Dreamworks, Sports Illustrated, Coca-Cola, The New York Times, and Major League Baseball, among others.
Nelson’s work has been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the country and abroad, including the Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles; The Museum of African American History in Detroit; the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum in Washington, D.C.; and the Society of Illustrators and the Studio Museum in Harlem, NY. Other exhibits have been mounted at The Bristol Museum in England, The Citizen's Gallery of Yokohama, Japan, and the Center for Culture of Tijuana in Mexico. His designs for the Postal Service include the Richard Wright and Anna Julia Cooper stamps, both issued in 2009, and the 2010 Negro Leagues Baseball stamps.
Portrait of Kadir Nelson © David Harrison/www.harrisonphoto.com