Kadir Arfin Nelson (1974- )

Kadir Nelson with Image of Jackie Robinson
Kadir Nelson With His Illustration of Jackie Robinson
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Kadir A. Nelson is one of the premier illustrators in the United States. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, on May 15, 1974, the son of Lenwood Melvin Nelson, a former wrestling coach and Howard University graduate and Emily Diane-Gunter, a telecommunications engineer and motivational speaker. Both parents possessed some artistic ability, but it was primarily his mother who encouraged his talent early on.

Raised in Atlantic City, New Jersey and then in Southern California, Nelson was mentored by an uncle who was an experienced artist, and instruction from an art teacher at Crawford High School in San Diego. He then attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Painting in oils since age 16, he won several art competitions. With the assistance of a scholarship, he initially studied architecture but after his first semester he switched his major to illustration and graduated with honors and a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1996 from Pratt, the same year he married Keara Ginneh Ricks.

Soon after graduation and an internship at the Society of Illustrators Nelson was offered an assignment from DreamWorks to do conceptual artwork for the motion picture Amistad. This assignment lead to choreographer-actress Debbie Allen enlisting him to contribute illustrations to her children’s book, Amistad:“Give Us Free” (1997), co-authored with Steven Spielberg and Maya Angelou. He also was the development artist for DreamWorks’ 2002 Academy-Award nominated animated feature, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.

In 1998 Nelson received the Society of Illustrator’s Gold Medal and by the beginning of the 21st century had positioned himself artistically to insure steady work and professional success and recognition. Essentially a realist painter whose colorful, luminous, expressive works often portray African American heroes and the everyday delights and activities of common folk, he has acknowledged the influence of artists Ernie Barnes, Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, Charles White, and Dean Cornwell.

Nelson’s creations have appeared in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and, on eight occasions, on the cover of The New Yorker; on stamps for the United States Postal Service; album covers for singers Michael Jackson and Drake; and in 33 children’s books he authored, co-authored, or contributed illustrations to.

His artworks have been exhibited in, among others, Smithsonian Anacostia Museum, The Studio Museum in Harlem, The Society of Illustrators Museum, Museum of Texas Tech University, and the Akron Art Museum. His honors and awards include three gold and five silver medals from the Society of Illustrators; two Caldecott Honors and two Coretta Scott King Awards from the American Library Association; three NAACP Image Awards; two New York Times Best Illustrated Book selections for We Are the Ship: The Story of the Negro Baseball League (2008) and Nelson Mandela (2013); and in 2019 he was named Sport Artist of the Year by the United States Sports Academy.

Divorced, Nelson has two daughters, Amel and Aya, a son, Ali, and presently lives in Los Angeles.