I recently attended the opening of the new exhibit "We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball" ,featuring some of the paintings by Kadir Nelson from his children's book of that title, at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. It's an impressive collection of large oil painting illustrations of various baseball players, and a few managers, from the old days.
Kadir Nelson paints well, and I admire his technique. There is something of the Brothers Hildebrandt in his technique and approach to light and color. And I am always impressed by anyone who is willing to "go bold" in their approach to stylizing certain things which might otherwise seem to require a very painstaking, detailed approach. In Nelson's case, I am thinking specifically of how he renders crowds sitting in bleachers in the distance -- he uses a variety of abstract shapes to suggest, rather than delineate, the way light falls on the brims of hats and curves of shoulders.
I should point our here that i have close to zero interest in baseball, historically significant or not. It simply bores me to tears. So keep that in mind when I say that you can probably get as much out of seeing one wall -- maybe two -- of these very similar paintings as you could seeing the entire gallery full of them. Most are variations on a basic theme -- a Negro League baseball player, usually just standing stiffly somewhere (typically at some position on the field of play, or on the sidelines of same), in bright sunlight, and in a vintage baseball uniform, stares out at the viewer. Nothing wrong with that -- it's just that it quickly becomes somewhat tedious. Maybe a baseball fan would get more out of it, but for me, I'd rather see some more variety in the types of scenes -- maybe more like the illustration Nelson created of the players singing and goofing around on the team bus. I did like the attention to detail Nelson demonstrates in his renderings of the vintage advertisements in the various ballparks.
I will say that seeing the exhibition -- and afterwards listening to the short talk Nelson gave -- has made me interested in learning more about the history of baseball as it relates to the Negro Leagues. It may even have inspired me to actually read one or more books about baseball -- and that is quite a feat.
Not that I have any more interest in baseball per se than when I walked into the gallery of his paintings, but one thing Nelson mentioned -- unfortunately in a slightly muddled way -- during his talk piqued my interest, and that was his statement that before the Negro League was formed, black athletes played baseball alongside white players for major league teams. I'd never known that, and I wish Nelson has been clearer about WHY that changed.
The exhibit will be up until June 10, 2012, and even though I am not a fan of baseball and the paintings -- as technically excellent as they were -- didn't blow me away, I would recommend the show. Maybe, like me, you'll learn something new about something old… and want to learn some more. -- PL