Acclaimed artist Kadir Nelson on what influences his paintings

Award-winning artist Kadir Nelson is known for his oil paintings that evoke both modern urban realism and the masterly works of turn-of-the century American painters. For our Weekend Spotlight, Geoff Bennett spoke to Nelson while he was in Washington, D.C., for the unveiling of his portrait of humanitarian chef José Andrés at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.

Ⓒ2022. Artwork by Kadir Nelson. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED (@kadirnelson)
Ⓒ2022. BTS Photos, Videos and Sound by Dr. Jungmiwha Bullock Nelson. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED (@jungmiwha)

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Finally tonight, it's time for our weekend spotlight with acclaimed artist Kadir Nelson.

    Perhaps you've seen his work featured on the cover of The New Yorker magazine, or hanging in the U.S. House of Representatives lining the walls of a museum or gallery, or popping off the pages of one of his more than 30 children's books.

    Kadir Nelson's work is unmistakable. His oil painting superlative. His rich palette and exceptional technique evoke both modern urban realism and masterly works of turn of the century American painters.

    I spoke with Kadir Nelson while he was in Washington DC for the unveiling of his portrait of humanitarian chef Jose Andres at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. He explained how he sought to capture Andres, whose World Central Kitchen serves hot meals around the globe, to people in areas hard hit by natural disasters and conflict.

  • Kadir Nelson:

    Well, my idea was to show or depict Jose Andres and his environment being the activist that is the philanthropist, an incredible chef, and how all of that has kind of come together in his world, what he emphasizes that he wants to feed the people familiar food, he looks at food in a way that's very — it's very intimate, very personal. And it's a way to not only sustain people, but to uplift people, to carry them through these difficult moments that they're faced with.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Can you walk us through your technique? I mean, how do you envision something like this in your mind's eye? And actually bring it to fruition? How do you make this happen?

  • Kadir Nelson:

    Well, first, I had to meet Jose and his family and try to get to know him to understand him and his mission. And what's important to him, I think we were having dinner of all things. And he mentioned that his mother was like a force of nature. And I thought it was really interesting because Jose often shows up after this force of nature has occurred. So I thought that it would be a really good idea to depict Jose kind of showing up after this storm has occurred.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    You started drawing and painting at a fairly young age and it was your uncle and a high school art teacher who taught you technique, is that right?

  • Kadir Nelson:

    My uncle Mike, who lives in Maryland, he essentially identified my gift at a very young age and encouraged my parents to support it. So my uncle gave me a lot of instruction, art instruction. My mother and my father, they gave me a lot of art materials to work with. When I got to high school, I was kind of further ahead than a lot of kids, because I had that instruction at a very early age, and I think really helped propel me forward into the world of art.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Let's look at two more of your works. This is Sweet Liberty, and Distant Summer. And what strikes me about these two is the play on patriotism.

  • Kadir Nelson:

    So the one on the left, Distant Summer seemed like it was very appropriate for that moment because I did this painting during the pandemic. So it was really my take on what it would be like for kids experiencing social distancing during the pandemic, one of the last images. For 2020 I did was have this one, Sweet Liberty, which was released around the time of the very controversial election in November 2020. And they end up becoming somewhat patriotic, because of course, they're red, white and blue. But the one on the right is specifically very patriotic, because it's a commentary on the election.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    How do you describe your style?

  • Kadir Nelson:

    You know, I think it's very difficult for me to describe my style. I think what's identifiable is my palette. And then also, I would say, a lot of my work is figurative, and it's emotional. All of that plays into or is heightened by the tools that I use lighting, composition, color, and so forth. So it's hard to describe my style, but I think it's pretty identifiable.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And this was the cover of Rolling Stone in the summer of 2020, inspired by the famous Stella Qua painting. And at the center of your piece, you have this heroic African American woman, with a flag bandana around her neck, and a little boy, what was the intention, the idea behind that?

  • Kadir Nelson:

    I'd heard someone describe my work is very American, I think is very true. It's certainly a theme that often comes up in my work. Of course, being in America, as an African American, I think very much informs my work. And I think a lot of it kind of came to a head during the pandemic when, you know, a lot of my work used to be very historical, and then became more contemporary as I began doing paintings that were set in real time.

    So shortly after George Floyd was murdered, and an all of the protests began happening all around us, it made a lot of sense to create artwork that spoke to that moment. And that's where this painting came from.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    You mentioned the pandemic, let's look at after the storm, because this is really a celebration of the human spirit, connected to the pandemic.

  • Kadir Nelson:

    This painting was done right at the beginning of the pandemic, when we all thought we were going to be kind of shuttered in for only two weeks. And I felt that it was very important to create a painting that was kind of full of light, and celebrated humanity. And in a moment when I think the intimacy of social contact was missing in our lives, because we were all you know, in quarantine, and kind of not really able to hug one another shake hands. For me, it was like creating an image that gave people some sense of security, reminder of humanity and something to look forward to, to kind of carry us through that moment.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Your work hangs in museums and hangs in galleries, you are sought after by collectors, but your art is also very accessible. You do album covers have done album covers, too, there was Drake's album cover. And then you also did an album cover from Michael Jackson. What was the story behind the one from Michael Jackson?

  • Kadir Nelson:

    You know, I'd done a painting that hung in the recording studio in Los Angeles that used to be owned by Marvin Gaye. And the man that was kind of refurbishing this studio, wanted to make it a shrine to Marvin Gaye. So I did a whole bunch of paintings of Marvin Gaye. Michael Jackson actually recorded there. And he would often go to the studio just to look at the paintings and you know, also record you know, so he saw the paintings and called me and asked me if I could do one for him. But, you know, bigger.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Michael Jackson wanted you to do what you had done for Marvin Gaye, but bigger is better.

  • Kadir Nelson:

    Yes, that's right. That's right. Unfortunately, he passed away before I could really get going on it but I end up doing the painting anyway for the guy that owned the studio and then Drake ended up later recording there and saw those paintings and thought, you know, I would be a good fit to create the artwork for his album cover, as you see it.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    When is art most effective?

  • Kadir Nelson:

    I think art is most effective when it stirs something up inside of people. The work that I create, I intend for it to remind people of the better parts of themselves, because I feel that if you see something that reminds you of something that is beautiful about yourself, or Integris, or something that is that reminds you of your inner strength and pushes you to move in that direction, then I think that I've kind of I've done my job as an artist to, to, you know, for that purpose.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Kadir Nelson, I appreciate you appreciate your time, and thanks so much for coming in.

  • Kadir Nelson:

    Thank you so much for having me.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    He's a singular talent.

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