Artist Kadir Nelson's evocative response to the pandemic

Artist Kadir Nelson's "After the Storm"
Artist Kadir Nelson's "After the Storm" 04:46

"I think what's in my head is the idea, or the feeling, that I want it to have," said artist Kadir Nelson.

"It has to have an emotion?" asked correspondent Lee Cowan.

"Yeah, yeah. I think that's what makes art art!"

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Artist Kadir Nelson at work.  CBS News

Nelson has been emoting one brush stroke at a time for decades.

Perhaps you've seen his work on the cover of The New Yorker, or in children's books; he's a celebrated illustrator, too. But his work also hangs in galleries and museums. Collectors eagerly seek him out. And what he does best, is what we need most of all right now: the strength of the human spirit, celebrated.

"I think it's a crucial moment,' Nelson said, "and I need to have a voice and create an image that will give people hope."

His latest work is titled "After the Storm." "All these people, all these figures in the painting, they have their eye on a common goal," he said.

It was still a work in progress when Cowan visited Nelson's Los Angeles studio earlier this month (at a healthy social distance, of course), but even in its earliest stages its message was clear.

"I think one of the things that we're probably missing, a lot of people are missing now, is human touch, because we have to stay so far away from one another," Nelson said.  "So, I wanted to make sure to emphasize that that is part of being a human being, is human touch."

Little hands holding big, old hands clasping young.

While working on it, Nelson explained, "The painting will tell me what it needs, what it wants."

"It really speaks to you that way?" asked Cowan.

"Yeah," he replied. "It's a conversation."

Nelson started having that conversation with crayons when he was just a boy – one in particular:  "It was the Incredible Hulk beating up the Fantastic 4 and Spider-man. And I thought, 'Wow, this is a narrative painting,' I didn't realize that's what it was, but I've always really found joy in telling stories with my work."

And those stories have gotten noticed. Just this year, his illustrations for the book "The Undefeated" garnered him not only the Coretta Scott King Book Award, but also the coveted 2020 Caldecott Medal – the Oscar of the children's book industry. "This was the year that I was given the biggest prize in children's literature!" he said,

But the threat of COVID-19 cancelled the Caldecott ceremony.

Cowan said, "That's gotta be disappointing."

"It was a bit disappointing, but I expected it," he replied.

He's spent years painting his passion: the heroes from Negro League Baseball.  He was going to help celebrate their centennial this year, but COVID-19 struck that out, too.  "But I totally understand. It takes a back seat to all of what we're experiencing. That's just where we are at the moment," Nelson said.

So, he's spent this uncomfortable moment painting the better moment to come.  

He finished "After the Storm" this past week; this is the first time anyone's seen it. 

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"After the Storm" by Kadir Nelson. CBS News

Most of what he'll get from its sale, and the prints that follow, he intends to give to COVID-19 relief efforts – no small donation.

Nelson said, "We are all human beings, and we are all part of the human family, and we are all experiencing this together."

Kadir Nelson used his talent to seize on the global stillness, and created an image that somehow screams unity in the quietest of ways.

He told Cowan, "I would challenge everyone and anyone to fill their days with creating something that's going to help themselves get to the next moment, to the next hour, to the next day, to the next week, so that by the end of this experience, we've created this beautiful document that shows where we've been, who we are, and how we're going to move forward."

From 2016: Artist Kadir Nelson's illustrations of pride and soul

Kadir Nelson's pride and soul 05:01

       
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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Lauren Barnello.