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First Person: Kadir Nelson On His Artistic Upbringing

Artist and illustrator Kadir Nelson poses in this undated photo.
Courtesy of Kadir Nelson
Artist and illustrator Kadir Nelson poses in this undated photo.
First Person: Kadir Nelson On His Artistic Upbringing
First Person: Kadir Nelson On His Artistic Upbringing GUEST: Kadir Nelson, artist and illustrator

As thousands of San Diego students start their new school year today some of them may be introduced to a subject that becomes a lifelong passion. Acclaimed artist and illustrator Kadeer Nelson found that passion as a student at public schools in San Diego and Chula Vista Nelson has illustrated 30 books album covers for Michael Jackson and Drake and countless covers for The New Yorker including the August 27th issue on news stands today which features a stirring graphite illustration of Aretha Franklin his portrait of Henrietta Lacks hangs in the National Portrait Gallery closer to home. Nelson's children's book blue sky white stars is the 2018 One Book One San Diego for kids selection as part of our First Person series. Nelson talks about being lovingly led to a life of art by his artistic family. He started the way nearly all children do with pencil and paper. When I was a kid I didn't necessarily think of a career in the arts as not really loved doing it. I honestly I wanted to be in the NBA and I wanted to play basketball. Michael Jordan was my hero and I would find images of him and paint them or draw them and it wasn't until a little bit later in my teenage years that I realized I kind of like drawing and painting. I work at that a lot harder a lot more than I do on my basketball skills. My name is Ghadeer Nelson. I'm an artist and an author. I recently illustrated a book called blue sky white stars written by Sarva under Naber house. My uncle who's an artist and art teacher he saw that I was very serious about the marks that I was making on the paper paid attention to the way that I was holding the pencil which was with with intention. And I told my mother to keep an eye out for me because I may be an artist. You could see that I was very serious about it and as I grew older he always gave me what my mother always gave me plenty of paper and pencils to work with. And my uncle during a couple of summers I'd go and spend with him and he took me under his wing. I became his apprentice basically gave me a very strong foundation in art. He taught me about you know lighting color perspective and so forth so all of that really put me ahead of my peers and allowed me to pursue what I really love doing which is creating art work. Much of my artistic upbringing came from what I learned either on my own or from my uncle. But I had a really great high school art teacher and was Sandra but unfortunately she's passed on but she was instrumental in me making the leap from working. With dried media and watercolor to a more opaque medium she pushed me she said you know you should really try working with acrylic and I tried it out my first painting was terrible. I didn't finish it. But you know I hated it and in my closet. And I called my uncle a few weeks later and I said What's wrong with why I cannot work with this medium. You know he said well you've got to add water to it you know. I didn't know that after that it was smooth sailing because it was really just like working with watercolor. And when I was 16 I went back another summer with my uncle and something happening with oil things. And that's what I used to this day Uncle Michael is the artist he was driving me to my dorm dropped off for college. And he said you know you might think about illustration like what I just got in architecture. I will ship. You know what. That was the seed. And then I realized that as I was studying architecture I really didn't love it I didn't love it like I love drawing and painting. And I I got the right push at the right time and my uncle one of my friends he's on a basketball team I played on and he brought as I work in practice and I was blown away by it and it was very much his work. You know it wasn't sometimes professors will have students who become clones of their professors that work looks just like theirs. And I very much have an identity to my work at that time and I didn't want it to be erased by Professor Soth figured architecture. I'll just Amalric on the side. I saw his work. You know the next day I changed my major. And you know I didn't look back. So this very key moments in my life where I was kind of pushed along very lovingly in the right direction. Debbie Allen she see the dancer and. Producer and she wears a lot of hats. We worked on the film Amistad together so we became friends then and I was visiting her one day. I live in Los Angeles when I lived in San Diego. So I made a trip to Los Angeles and we were in Hollywood walking around and she said you know my friend has a he has a recording studio here let's go see if he's there. And it ended up being Marvin Gaye's old recording studio whose music I just love you know and grown up listening to his music we're sitting in there and you said you think you can do a painting for me for Margon for the studio. Absolutely. So we talked about that. Doing the work I did two paintings he only want one but I made two said if he's going to do this so I'm going up in the studio. It looked great there. It was very fitting and it was really kind of like the cherry on top for the studio and on the nose to me the owner of the studio was a childhood friend of Michael Jackson and he had been trying to get Michael to record in his new studio. Michael came to record at the studio and he got there and he saw the paintings and fell in love with them. I got to speak to him and he said you know I really like your artwork is really beautiful and I want one of me but I wanted to be bigger. So and they were big they were already big but Michael's you know cause life is big. So I was absolutely I'd love to. He gave me his phone number and a couple of weeks later I gave him a call and I heard his voice on the machine. I didn't wasn't able to reach him. So I didn't push it so I just kind of put on the backburner for a long time. And then after that I mean it was maybe five or six years later I heard the news that Michael had passed away and the executor and co executor of the estate who was the same guy in the studio he called me and he said it was time for you to that painting that Michael wanted you to do don't ask any questions as to the painting. We'll figure out what we're going to do with later. While I was working on he said I'm going try to put this on my next album on the album is of the year. You know I was like I could. I couldn't believe it. That first person feature was produced by Megan Burke.

Long before he was an acclaimed artist and illustrator, Kadir Nelson was a student at public schools in San Diego and Chula Vista.

Nelson has illustrated 30 books, album covers for Michael Jackson and Drake and countless covers for The New Yorker magazine including the Aug. 27 issue which features a stirring illustration of Aretha Franklin. His portrait of Henrietta Lacks hangs in the National Portrait gallery.

Nelson’s children’s book, "Blue Sky, White Stars," is the 2018 One Book, One San Diego for kids selection.


As part of our First Person series Nelson talks about being lovingly led to a life of art by his artistic family.

KPBS Midday Edition's First Person series tells the stories of average and not-so-average San Diegans in their own words. Their experiences, both universal and deeply personal, offer a unique lens into the news of the day.