kadir-nelson_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

For two years, Kadir Nelson’s oil-and-canvas depictions of the era of black baseball have been on national display — from Kansas City, home of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, to Fort Wayne, Ind., the exhibit’s most recent exhibit stop.

But when the exhibit opened last week at Miami Dade College, Nelson almost could not find the words to respond to the welcome he received.

“Miami thus far has been the best presentation of the exhibit,” Nelson said at the Nov. 3 opening of We are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.

The exhibit, which includes 33 oil-on-canvas paintings and 13 original sketches, are on display at the college Art Gallery in the school’s Freedom Tower in downtown Miami. “The degree of reverence that Miami has given is heartwarming,” Nelson said.

The exhibit, which shares the name of a children’s book that Nelson authored and illustrated, will be on show until Jan. 8. The display offers vivid in-the-moment scenes of the heydays of Negro League Baseball, the period between 1920 and 1950s, when, because of segregation, African Americans could not play in professional major leagues. Instead, they created their own teams and played against one another.

Nelson’s depictions range from a dramatic, home-plate showdown between legendary pitcher Leroy Satchel Paige and batter Josh Gibson to team and individual portraits of big-name players such as James “Cool Papa” Bell and Jackie Robinson, the Negro League player who, in 1946, became the first African American to play in the major leagues since 1889, when black players were barred.

The life-size portrait of Robinson is a favorite of former Florida Marlins player Andre Dawson, who was among the guests touring the exhibit, admiring the paintings and reading the historical information that accompanied each work.

“Jackie is just so real,” Dawson said. “I was looking at his hands; they are so life-like.”

Dawson, who was born in Miami, played for the Montreal Expos, the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, ending his career in 1996 after a year with the Florida Marlins. 

“This man is talented,” Dawson said of Nelson. “It is phenomenal, outstanding work. The images jump right out at you.”

Another favorite among guests at the reception was a painting of Negro National League founder Rube Foster standing with members of the Giants, who, dressed in suits and hats, had just stepped off a wooden coach train.

It is a quote from Foster that gave Nelson the title for his book and art collection:  “We are the ship; all else the sea.”

“He was telling players, ‘You are not restricted by anything. You are the captain of the ship. You guide your ship through the challenges. You stay in control,’” said Emily Gunter, Nelson’s mother, a Homestead resident and a key organizer of the exhibit.

Gunter and Nelson’s sister, Saliha Nelson, have been working with community partners such as Miami Dade College, attorney Al Dotson Jr., and the Florida Marlins (now the Miami Marlins), to coordinate the exhibit and the associated  community outreach programs.

The Negro League fielded the Miami Marlins who played in Dorsey Park in 1956 and 1960, a time when the major leagues were reaching out to black players.  Prior to that, there were the Miami Giants, an unofficial minor league team of the Negro National League, which started up in 1932.

“Dorsey Park — this is where they played in Miami,” Gunter said. “Josh Gibson hit the ball out of the park; Satchel Paige pitched here.”

The park, at Northwest 17th Street and First Avenue, is now home to the Rattlers, sponsored by the Overtown Optimists Inc.

Until he saw a PBS documentary in 1994 on Negro League Baseball Kadir Nelson, 37, did not know anything about the historic league, he said. But once he learned more, he could not wait to write a children’s book on the topic and put the league’s story to canvas. The project took eight years to complete.

WHAT: We are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball exhibit

WHEN: 12-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays through Jan.8

WHERE: Miami Dade College’s Art Gallery at the Freedom Tower, 600 Biscayne Blvd. in downtown Miami

COST: Free

CONTACT: 305-237-7700; urgentinc.org; kadirnelson.com

Photo: Kadir Nelson