The artist Kadir Nelson’s latest cover, “Stickball Alley,” captures the thrill and tension of a pickup game. Nelson began drawing at the age of three, and went to art school in New York; since then, his work has often tapped into the energy of street life in the city. He recently sat down to discuss the cover and his influences.
The image is set in the Brooklyn of the fifties. Why that era?
Much of my work is very nostalgic. I’m a big fan of baseball history and Jackie Robinson, and I wanted to create an image that celebrated Robinson, baseball, and New York. What better way to connect all three than with a stickball game, set in the nineteen-fifties, with the Brooklyn Bridge in the backdrop?
You’ve already done an ode to the Brooklyn stoop. Now we’re on the street. What is it about the city that draws you back?
I actually grew up in south New Jersey and San Diego, but I attended art school at Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn. When I was eighteen, my father drove me from Atlantic City to Brooklyn to visit the campus the summer before my freshman year. As soon as we crossed over the bridge and I set foot on Brooklyn pavement, it was like coming home. I love the energy of the city. It’s where I found my stride.
The cover riffs on another painting you’ve done, “Stickballers.”
“Stickballers” was acquired last year, so I don’t get to live with it anymore, but it was fun to reimagine the scene in a different era and put a Brooklyn stamp on it. I loved painting the laundry hanging overhead, the curious onlookers in the background, and the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. There’s tension in the image. Everyone is waiting to see what will happen.
One of Nelson’s early rough sketches of the cover.
You’ve long been a baseball fan. Did you ever play stickball growing up?
Are you kidding? When I was a kid, we played stickball, dodgeball, kickball, you name it. It was a time when all the kids in the neighborhood played together outside. I loved it. Painting this image reminded me of the fun of childhood.
You’ve done commissions for Major League Baseball, too.
Yes, with the San Diego Padres. It was a huge honor. They were very supportive of my work while I was working on my book “We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball,” which came out in 2008. Actually, if it weren’t for the Padres and former owner John Moores collecting my baseball artwork at the time, I don’t think I would have been able to finish the book.
For more of Kadir Nelson’s covers, read:
“After Dr. King”
“Schomburg Center, Harlem, New York”