The Painting, by Kadir Nelson, is called Willie Foster and Young Fans. In it the Hall of Fame pitcher, who played for the Chicago American Giants of the Negro leagues in the 1920s and '30s, stands, shoulders stiff, eyes narrowed, impeccably dressed in a suit and fedora. Trailing behind him are four kids lugging his uniform, spikes and glove and hoping to ride his coattails into the ballpark. The scene brings back memories for Buck O'Neil, the 93-year-old former Kansas City Monarchs first baseman. "When we played in the Negro leagues, all the kids gathered outside the park to carry our equipment," he says with a chuckle. "They looked up to us, but they just wanted to get into the park for free."
The work is part of Shades of Greatness, a contemporary art show inspired by the Negro leagues. In March 2003, 28 artists were invited to attend a daylong crash course in history at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. "We wanted to convince artists to make art based on what they learned at the museum," says Bob Kendricks, the museum's director of marketing. The resulting 35 works--which include paintings, sculpture and mixed media--are on display at the Museum of African American History in Detroit, in conjunction with next week's All-Star Game at Comerica Park. The exhibit will go on tour in September.
While Nelson chose to illustrate the bond between player and fan, other artists tackled larger issues. One mixed media exhibit has two chairs placed back-to-back, one labeled whites, the other coloreds. On the seat of the former is a painting of Ty Cobb sliding into a base; the other shows Jackie Robinson in a parallel pose. "I wanted them both to be in similar positions to show that anyone can play the game--black, white or racist," says the artist, 19-year-old Cortney Wall. And Henry Dixon's Last Trip to the Locker shows a retiring player reflecting on the fact that he never had the chance to play in the majors.
Kendricks says the works were commissioned so viewers could "appreciate the creativity of the artists and learn about the Negro leagues." The exhibit succeeds on both counts. "It's amazing what you can do with that paintbrush," O'Neil says. "I can talk to you all day about the Negro leagues, but when you look at a painting, it does wonders." --Jaime Lowe