Stamp Artist Kadir Nelson Talks Negro Leagues Baseball

Over the past few years, artist Kadir Nelson‘s stunning creations have been showcased in several U.S. Postal Service projects. His artwork will appear on the 2012 Major League Baseball All-Stars stamps, which are set to be released later this year. His evocative paintings also helped make the 2010 Negro Leagues Baseball stamps come to life.

Nelson, the author of We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro Leagues Baseball, checked in this week to talk a bit about the development of the 44-cent Negro Leagues Baseball commemorative stamps. (They’re still available—in sheets of 20, blocks of 10, or blocks of four through the Postal store.)

How did you become interested in Negro Leagues baseball?

I was commissioned to do a painting on Negro Leagues baseball while I was a junior at Pratt Institute. Upon researching the leagues I came across the Ken Burns documentary, Baseball. I was captivated by the history of baseball and was quite charmed by Buck O’Neil’s recollections of the leagues. I was hooked on the leagues from then on. I loved the story most of all. I found it endlessly fascinating that a group of determined baseball players and owners could create such a beautiful successful institution by themselves and hold on to the dream of integrating Major League Baseball by way of their professional play, attitudes, and presentation. The idea that something beautiful was created from something as negative and ugly as discrimination was particularly poignant for me.

Is there one player you’ve most enjoyed depicting in your work?

I loved painting all of the players, but if I had to pick one player, it would be Satchel Paige. He was tall and lanky and seemed to be always smiling inside and enjoying his life. There always seemed to be a humorous undertone with him. If I could choose another, it would be Josh Gibson. He was the epitome of what Negro Leagues baseball meant to me. Gibson represents both the triumph and the tragedy of the leagues. He was visibly strong and well equipped to play baseball on any platform, but because of the discriminative environment of Major League Baseball and the country, he was not allowed to play on the grandest stage in baseball. His is a story that represents the endless series of “what ifs” that arise from discussions about the Negro Leagues.

Can you talk a bit about your artistic process in regards to the Negro Leagues Baseball stamps?

I went through numerous sketches and ideas during the process of creating the visuals for the stamps. I found a great photo of Rube Foster that I felt represented the subject and the era. Composing the background was a bit of a challenge. We tried several approaches and wound up using an action scene that depicted the brand of fast-paced baseball that was a signature to both Rube’s preferred style of play and that of the Negro leagues.

Was it an enjoyable project for you?

Creating the Negro League stamps was one of the most fulfilling projects I’ve worked on to date. It came at the end of a series of paintings I’d finished on the Negro Leagues and felt like the perfect fit for where I was at the time. I’m very proud of them.

Looking back now, what aspect of the finished stamps do you like the most?

I can’t say I like one thing over another in regard to the stamps. I love everything about them. But of course, I may be biased.