Picturing a dream
By MIRIAM DI NUNZIO email@example.com January 18, 2013 3:26PM
Kadir Nelson went to Washington, D.C., for research and inspiration before creating illustrations for his children's book. | © Kadir Nelson, from "I Have a Dream" (Random House)
Illustrator Kadir Nelson will discuss and sign copies of his children’s book:
• 7 p.m. Jan. 21 at Oak Park Library, 843 Lake St., Oak Park, Ill.
• 7 p.m. Jan. 22, Anderson’s Bookshop, 123 W. Jefferson Ave., Naperville, Ill.; (630) 355-2665.
It was the speech that spoke to the heart of a nation torn by racism and the socio-economic divide, igniting the civil rights movement as few other public addresses had done before. And this year marks the 50th anniversary of that event — Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington, D.C.
While schools and office buildings are closed to celebrate Martin Luther King Day on Jan. 21, Caldecott Award-winning illustrator and author Kadir Nelson hopes children will find the meaning of the day in his just-published picture book, “I Have a Dream” (Random House, $18.99), which includes highlights of the speech accompanied by Nelson’s oil painting illustrations. The hardcover book also features the complete text of the speech and an audio CD of King delivering the speech at the 1963 event.
Kadir’s artistry is featured in numerous other children’s books, including “Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans,” “Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led her People to Freedom”and “We Are the Ship: the Story of Negro League Baseball,” and is also on display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the U.S. Capitol and on U.S. postage stamps. His study of Michael Jackson’s life was featured on the pop star’s last album.
Q.How did the book “I Have a Dream” get its start?
A. I didn’t seek it out; I was asked to do it by the publishers. A book had been done several years ago using a collaboration of several artists. This time they wanted to do it in a different way — with one voice — and they asked if I’d be interested. I’m at point where I’m not illustrating the words of other storytellers and authors, but I make exceptions when the text is outstanding, and this is one of greatest speeches in history. I felt privileged to add images to Dr. King’s speech.
Q.Do you remember the first time you heard or read the speech? And how did you decide on the excerpts that you ultimately illustrated?
A. I memorized it in fifth grade, where my first assignment was to deliver this speech. Working on this book, I looked at it again, and it’s a very long speech, so I chose the most famous parts of it along with the publishers. We chose [passages] that would resonate most with children, parts that were a little more abstract, perhaps, that weren’t so tied to the ’60s as those would be a little harder for kids to digest.
Q.When you begin the creative process of the illustrations, how do you work through that?
A. I do sketches first. They’re fairly loose but give me a good idea of what I would imagine them to be. Then I do quite a bit of research. This time I went to Washington, D.C., to the mall, and walked along the edge of the reflecting pool all the way up to where he delivered his speech. I visited the [King] memorial to get a sense of time and space. I took a number of pictures and then went home and started the paintings. When I’m reading the text, like most people, I see pictures I my head. I can only paint what I see, whatever comes to me while I’m reading. That’s basically what I paint. It’s either an image in my head or feeling that I wanted to capture. The best [paintings] happen when both of those processes come together.
Q.Why do you think the speech resonates so powerfully 50 years later?
A. The theme of “the dream” — of holding a vision in your head for the way we hope things can be — is always gonna resonate. It’s a human thing that runs throughout history. I think the speech speaks to the power of holding out for that dream; the fact that it was a universal message that spoke to everyone, that everyone could relate to, regardless of age, ethnicity, religion or gender. And it was right in line with the ideals that were set forth when our country was founded, the message of inclusiveness that our forefathers had imagined for the country.
Q.Which part of the speech resonates the most with you?
A. There really isn’t one specific passage, but I guess the overall message and the power of the words — that Dr. King was able to use his words and intentions to change the minds of people. That’s the only the way things change: when people change their minds about whatever judgments they make.... It was really a letter addressed to America sharing Dr. King’s dream for the country and how he and many people felt.
Q.You’ve painted so many world leaders, legendary sports figures and celebrities. Who impressed you the most?
A. The truth is I like to meet and sit with people who have a really strong spiritual sense of themselves, whether they are a world leader or someone who is not in the public eye. In some way it’s all the same — that shared spirit, that shared sense of spirituality.
Q.Your painting is the cover art for Michael Jackson’s “Michael” album. How did that project come your way?
A. Back in 2003, Michael was recording an album at a studio in Los Angeles where I had some artwork hanging. And he saw them and liked them so much that he called and asked if I would do painting of him, tell his life story on canvas. I thought it was great idea and was ready to get started. Shortly after that, unfortunately, the [alleged sexual abuse] court case began, and for the next year or two, he was in court. ... I never did have the opportunity to meet him. We only spoke on the phone. ... It wasn’t until 2009 after he passed away that his former manager called and asked me to pick up and finish the painting that Michael wanted me to do. He didn’t have specific intensions; he just wanted me to do it as a historical document. And along the way he decided that he wanted to use it for the album. ... It’s really Michael’s whole life, from genesis to exodus.