Ernest Eugene Barnes, Jr. (July 15, 1938 – April 27, 2009) was an African-American painter, well known for his unique style of elongation and movement. He was also a professional football player, actor and author.
Ernest Barnes, Jr. was born during Jim Crow in "the bottom" community of Durham, North Carolina, near the city's Hayti District. He had a younger brother James (b. 1942) as well as a half-brother, Benjamin B. Rogers, Jr. (1920–1970). Ernest Jr. was nicknamed "June." His father, Ernest E. Barnes, Sr. (1899–1966) worked as a shipping clerk for Liggett Myers Tobacco Company. His mother, Fannie Mae Geer (1905–2004) oversaw the household staff for a prominent Durham attorney and local Board of Education member, Frank L. Fuller, Jr. On days when Fannie allowed "" (Barnes' nickname to family and childhood friends) to accompany her to the Fuller home, Barnes had the opportunity to peruse the art books and listen to classical music. The young Ernest was intrigued and captivated by the works of master artists.
By the time Barnes entered the first grade, he was familiar with the works of such masters as Toulouse-Lautrec, Delacroix, Velasquez, Rubens, and Michelangelo. When he entered junior high school, he could appreciate, as well as decode, many of the cherished masterpieces within the walls of mainstream museums – although it would be a half dozen more years before he was allowed entrance because of his race.
A self-described chubby and unathletic child, Barnes was taunted and bullied by classmates. He continually sought refuge in his sketchbooks, hiding in the less-traveled parts of campus away from other students. One day in a quiet area, Ernest was found drawing in a notebook by the masonry teacher, Tommy Tucker, who was also the weightlifting coach and a former athlete. Tucker was intrigued with Barnes' drawings, so he asked the aspiring artist about his grades and goals. Tucker shared his own experience of how bodybuilding improved his strength and outlook on life. That one encounter would begin Barnes' discipline and dedication that would permeate his life. By his senior year, Barnes became an excelling athlete at Hillside High School, becoming the captain of the football team and state champion in the shot put.
In 1956 Barnes graduated from Hillside High School with 26 athletic scholarship offers. Segregation prevented him from attending nearby Duke University or the University of North Carolina. His mother promised him a car if he lived at home, so he chose North Carolina College at Durham (formerly North Carolina College for Negroes, now North Carolina Central University). He majored in art on a full athletic scholarship. His college track coach was Dr. Leroy T. Walker. Barnes played the football positions of tackle and center during college.
At age 18, on a college art class field trip to the newly desegregated North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, Barnes inquired where he could find "paintings by Negro artists." The docent responded, "Your people don't express themselves that way." Poetic justice prevailed 23 years later in 1979 when Barnes returned to the museum for a solo exhibition, hosted by North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt.
In December 1959 Barnes was drafted in the 10th round by the then-World Champion Baltimore Colts. He was originally selected in the 8th-round by the Washington Redskins, who renounced the pick minutes after discovering he was a Negro.
Shortly after his 22nd birthday, while at the Colts training camp, Barnes was interviewed by N.P. Clark, sportswriter for the Baltimore News-Post newspaper. Until then Barnes was always known by his birth name, Ernest Barnes. But when Clark's article appeared on July 20, 1960, it referred to him as "Ernie Barnes," which changed his name and life forever.
Barnes was the last cut of the Colts' training camp. After Baltimore released Barnes, the newly formed Titans of New York immediately signed him because the team had first option on any player released within the league.
Barnes loathed being on the Titans. He said, "(New York) was a circus of ineptitude. The equipment was poor, the coaches not as knowledgeable as the ones in Baltimore. We were like a group of guys in the neighborhood who said let's pretend we're pros."
After a 27-21 loss to the Oilers on October 9, 1960 at Jeppesen Stadium, his teammate Howard Glenn died. Barnes asked for his release two days later. Glenn had sustained a broken neck in the first half of the game and it was reported that injury caused his death. However, Barnes and other teammates have long attributed it to heatstroke. In a later interview, Barnes said, "They never really said what he died of. (Coach) Sammy Baugh said he'd broken his neck in a game the Sunday before. But how could that be? How could he have hit in practice all week with a broken neck? What he died of, I think, was more like heat exhaustion. I told them I didn't want to play on a team like this."
Barnes then accepted a previous offer from Coach Al Davis at the Los Angeles Chargers. Barnes joined their team at mid-season as a member of their taxi squad. The following season in 1961 the team moved to San Diego. It was there Barnes met their quarterback and future congressman Jack Kemp. The two men would share a lifelong close friendship.
During the off-seasons with the Chargers, Barnes was program director at San Diego's Southeast YMCA working with parolees from the California Youth Authority. He also worked as the Sports Editor for The Voice, a local San Diego newspaper, writing a weekly column called "A Matter of Sports."
Barnes also illustrated several articles for San Diego Magazine during the off-seasons in 1962 and 1963.
Barnes' first television interview as a professional football player and artist was in 1962 on The Regis Philbin Show on KGTV in San Diego. It was Philbin's first talk show.
After a series of injuries, Barnes was cut midway through his second season with the Chargers. He then signed with the Denver Broncos.
Barnes was called "Big Rembrandt" by his Denver teammates. Coincidentally, Barnes and Rembrandt share the same birthday.
Barnes was often fined by Denver Coach Jack Faulkner when caught sketching during team meetings. One of the sketches that he was fined $100 for sold years later for $1000.
During the Broncos games, Barnes would run off the field and onto the sideline to give his offensive line coach Red Miller the scraps of paper of his sketches and notes.
"During a timeout you've got nothing to do – you're not talking – you're just trying to breathe, mostly. Nothing to take out that little pencil and write down what you saw. The shape of the linemen. The body language a defensive lineman would occupy... his posture... What I see when you pull. The reaction of the defense to your movement. The awareness of the lines within the movement, the pattern within the lines, the rhythm of movement. A couple of notes to me would denote an action... an image that I could instantly recreate in my mind. Some of those notes have been made into paintings. Quite a few, really."
On Barnes' 1964 Denver Broncos Topps football card he is shown wearing jersey #55 although he never played in that number. His jersey was #62.
In 1965, after his second season with the Broncos, Barnes signed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Canada. In the final quarter of their last exhibition game, Barnes fractured his right foot, effectively ending his professional football career.
Shortly after his final football game, Barnes went to the 1965 NFL owners meeting in Houston in hopes of becoming the league's official artist. There he was introduced to New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin, who was intrigued by Barnes and his art. He paid for Barnes to bring his paintings to New York City. Later they met at a gallery and unbeknownst to Barnes, three art critics were there to evaluate his paintings. They told Werblin that Barnes was "the most expressive painter of sports since George Bellows." In what was one of the most unusual personnel transactions in the history of the NFL, Werblin retained Barnes as a salaried player, but positioned him in front of the canvas, rather than on the football field. Werblin told Barnes, "You have more value to the country as an artist than as a football player."
Barnes' November 1966 debut solo exhibition, hosted by Werblin at the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York City was critically acclaimed and all the paintings sold.
In 1971 Barnes wrote a series of essays "I Hate the Game I Love" (with Neil Amdur), illustrated with Barnes' own drawings, in the Gridiron newspaper. These articles became the beginning manuscript of his autobiography, later-published in 1995 titled From Pads to Palette which chronicles his transition from professional football to his art career.
In October 2007, the National Football League and Time Warner hosted a tribute to Ernie Barnes in New York City.
Barnes credits his college art instructor Ed Wilson for laying the foundation for his development as an artist. Wilson was a sculptor who instructed Barnes to paint from his own life experiences. "He made me conscious of the fact that the artist who is useful to America is one who studies his own life and records it through the medium of art, manners and customs of his own experiences."
All his life, Barnes was ambivalent about his football experience. In interviews and in personal appearances, Barnes said he hated the violence and the physical torment of the sport. However, his years as an athlete gave him unique, in-depth observations. "(Wilson) told me to pay attention to what my body felt like in movement. Within that elongation, there's a feeling. And attitude and expression. I hate to think had I not played sports what my work would look like."
Barnes' first painting sale was in 1959 for $90 to Boston Celtic Sam Jones for a painting called Slow Dance. It was subsequently lost in a fire at Jones' home.
Critics have defined Barnes' work as neo-mannerist. Based on his signature use of serpentine lines, elongation of the human figure, clarity of line, unusual spatial relationships, painted frames, and distinctive color palettes, art critic Frank Getlein credited Barnes as the founder of the neo-Mannerism movement - because of the similarity of technique and composition prevalent during the 16th century, as practiced by such masters as Michelangelo and Raphael.
Numerous artists have been influenced by Barnes' art and unique style. Accordingly, several copyright infringement lawsuits have been settled and are currently pending.
Ernie Barnes framed his paintings with distressed wood in homage to his father. In his 1995 autobiography, Barnes wrote of his father: “... with so little education, he had worked so hard for us. His legacy to me was his effort, and that was plenty. He knew absolutely nothing about art.”
Weeks before Ernie Barnes’ first solo art exhibition in 1966, he was at the family home in Durham as his father lay in the hospital after suffering a stroke. He noticed the usually well-maintained white picketed fence had gone untended since his father’s illness. Days later, Ernest E. Barnes, Sr. died. “I placed a painting against the fence and stood away and had a look. I was startled at the marriage between the old wood fence and the painting. It was perfect. In tribute, Daddy’s fence would hug all my paintings in a prestigious New York gallery. That would have made him smile.”
A consistent and distinct feature in Barnes' work is the closed eyes of his subjects. "It was in 1971 when I conceived the idea of The Beauty of the Ghetto as an exhibition. And I exposed it to some people who were black to get a reaction. And from one (person) it was very negative. And when I began to express my points of view (to this) professional man, he resisted the notion. And as a result of his comments and his attitude I began to see, observe, how blind we are to one another's humanity. Blinded by a lot of things that have, perhaps, initiated feelings in that light. We don't see into the depths of our interconnection. The gifts, the strength and potential within other human beings. We stop at color quite often. So one of the things we have to be aware of is who we are in order to have the capacity to like others. But when you cannot visualize the offerings of another human being you're obviously not looking at the human being with open eyes." "We look upon each other and decide immediately: This person is black, so he must be... This person lives in poverty, so he must be..."
The Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee named Barnes "Sports Artist of the 1984 Olympic Games". LAOOC President Peter V. Ueberroth said Barnes and his art "captured the essence of the Olympics" and "portray the city's ethnic diversity, the power and emotion of sports competition, the singleness of purpose and hopes that go into the making of athletes the world over." Barnes was commissioned to create five Olympic-themed paintings and serve as an official Olympic spokesman to encourage inner city youth.
In 1985 Barnes was named the first "Sports Artist of the Year" by the United States Sports Academy.
In 1987 Barnes created Fastbreak, a commissioned painting of the World Champion Los Angeles Lakers basketball team that included Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Kurt Rambis and Michael Cooper.
Carolina Panthers football team owners Rosalind and Jerry Richardson (Barnes' former Colts teammate) commissioned Barnes to create the large painting Victory in Overtime (approximately 7 ft. x 14 ft.). It was unveiled before the team's 1996 inaugural season and hangs permanently in the owner's suite at the stadium.
To commemorate their 50th anniversary in 1996, the National Basketball Association commissioned Barnes to create a painting with the theme, "Where we were, where we are, and where we are going." The painting, The Dream Unfolds hangs in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. A limited edition of lithographs were made, with the first 50 prints going to each of the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.
In 2004 Barnes was named "America's Best Painter of Sports" by the American Sport Art Museum & Archives.
Other notable sports commissions include paintings for the New Orleans Saints, Oakland Raiders and Boston Patriots football team owners.
Shortly after Barnes was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1959, Barnes was invited to see their Colts' NFL Championship Game vs. the New York Giants at Memorial Stadium in Maryland. The Colts won 31-16 and Barnes was filled with layers of emotion after watching the game from behind the Colts' bench. He had just signed his football contract and met his new teammates Johnny Unitas, Jim Parker, Lenny Moore, Art Donovan, Gino Marchetti, Alan Ameche and "Big Daddy" Lipscomb.
Barnes later wrote that after he returned home, he "placed a stretched canvas on the easel. Without making any preliminary sketches, I started painting in quick, direct movements hoping to capture the vision in my mind before it evaporated." He created The Bench in less than an hour. Throughout his life, The Bench remained in Barnes' possession, even taking it with him to all his football training camps and hiding it under his bed. It would be the only painting Barnes would never sell, despite many substantial offers, including a $25,000 bid at his first show in 1966.
On June 18, 2014 The Bench was formally presented to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio for their permanent collection by his wife Bernie Barnes.
Barnes created the painting The Sugar Shack in the 1970s. It gained international exposure when it was used on the Good Times television series and on the 1976 Marvin Gaye album I Want You.
According to Barnes, he created the original version of The Sugar Shack after reflecting upon his childhood, during which he was not "able to go to a dance." In a 2008 interview, Barnes said, "The Sugar Shack is a recall of a childhood experience. It was the first time my innocence met with the sins of dance. The painting transmits rhythm so the experience is re-created in the person viewing it. To show that African-Americans utilize rhythm as a way of resolving physical tension." The Sugar Shack has been known to art critics for embodying the style of art composition known as "Black Romantic," which, according to Natalie Hopkinson of The Washington Post, is the "visual-art equivalent of the Chitlin' circuit." When Barnes first created The Sugar Shack, he included his hometown radio station WSRC on a banner. (He incorrectly listed the frequency at 620, though it was actually 1410. Barnes confused what he used to hear WSRC's on-air personality Norfley Whitted saying "620 on your dial" when Whitted was at his former station WDNC in the early 1950s.)
After Marvin Gaye asked him for permission to use the painting as an album cover, Barnes then augmented the painting by adding references that allude to Gaye's album, including banners hanging from the ceiling to promote the album's singles.
During the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever anniversary television special on March 25, 1983, tribute was paid to The Sugar Shack with a dance interpretation of the painting.
The original piece is currently owned by actor Eddie Murphy.
Barnes' work appears on the following album covers:
In response to the 1960s "Black is beautiful" cultural movement and James Brown's 1968 "Say it Loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud" song, Barnes created The Beauty of the Ghetto exhibition of 35 paintings that toured major American cities from 1972 to 1979 hosted by dignitaries, professional athletes and celebrities.
Of his The Beauty of the Ghetto exhibition, Barnes said, "I am providing a pictorial background for an understanding into the aesthetics of black America. It is not a plea to people to continue to live there (in the ghetto) but for those who feel trapped, it is...a challenge of how beautiful life can be." When The Beauty of the Ghetto was on view in 1974 at the Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, Rep. John Conyers stressed the important positive message of the exhibit in the Congressional Record.
In the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Mayor Tom Bradley used Barnes' painting Growth Through Limits as an inspirational billboard in the inner-city. Barnes contributed $1,000 to the winner of a slogan contest among the city's junior high school students that best represented the painting.
Barnes' work was included in the 1995 traveling group exhibition 20th Century Masterworks of African-American Artists II.
Barnes' painting The Advocate was donated to the North Carolina Central University School of Law in 1998 by a private collector. Barnes felt compelled to create the painting from his "concern with the just application of the law... the integrity of the legal process for all people, but especially those without resource or influence."
While watching the tragic events of 9/11, Barnes created the painting In Remembrance. It was formally unveiled at the Seattle Art Museum. It was later acquired on behalf of the City of Philadelphia and donated to its African American Museum. A limited number of giclée prints were sold with 100% of the proceeds going to the Hero Scholarship Fund, which provides college tuition and expenses to children of Pennsylvania police and fire personnel killed in the line of duty.
Three of Barnes' original paintings were exhibited at London's Whitechapel Gallery in the 2005 Back to Black: Art, Cinema & Racial Imaginary art exhibition.
In 2005 rapper producer Kanye West commissioned Barnes to create a painting to depict his life-changing experience following his near-fatal car crash. A Life Restored measures 9 ft. x 10 ft. and hangs on West's dining room ceiling. In the center of the painting is a large angel reaching out to a much smaller figure of West. It was inaccurately reported in several media outlets that the image of the angel in the painting is of West.
Barnes' final public exhibition was in October 2007 when the NFL and Time Warner sponsored A Tribute to Artist and NFL Alumni Ernie Barnes in New York City. It was hosted by Donna Brazile, Susan L. Taylor, Brig Owens and his former teammate, the Hon. Jack Kemp (who died five days after Barnes in 2009).
At the time of his death, Barnes had been working on an exhibition Liberating Humanity From Within which featured a majority of paintings he created in the last few years of his life. Plans will continue. The exhibition will travel throughout the country and abroad.
Barnes appeared on a 1967 episode of the game show To Tell The Truth/. The panelists correctly guessed Barnes was the professional football player-turned-artist.
Barnes played Deke Coleman in the 1969 motion picture Number One which stars Charlton Heston and Jessica Walter. Barnes played Dr. Penfield in the 1971 movie Doctors' Wives, which starred Dyan Cannon, Richard Crenna, Gene Hackman and Carroll O'Connor.
In 1971 Barnes, along with Mike Henry, created the Super Comedy Bowl, a variety show CBS television special which showcased pro athletes with celebrities such as John Wayne, Frank Gifford, Alex Karras, Joe Namath, Jack Lemmon, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Tony Curtis. A second special aired in 1972.
Throughout the Good Times television series (1974–79) most of the paintings by the character J.J. are works by Ernie Barnes. However a few images, including "Black Jesus" in the first season (1974), were not painted by Barnes. The Sugar Shack made its debut on the show's fourth season (1976–77) during the opening and closing credits. In the fifth season (1977–78) The Sugar Shack was only used in the closing credits for five early episodes during that season. In the sixth season (1978–79), The Sugar Shack was only used in opening credits for the first eight episodes and in the closing credits for five early episodes during that season. In the fifth and sixth seasons (1977–79), The Sugar Shack appears in the background of the Evans family apartment. Barnes had a bit part on two episodes of Good Times: The Houseguest (February 18, 1975) and Sweet Daddy Williams (January 20, 1976).
Barnes' artwork was also used on many television series, including Columbo, The White Shadow, Dream On, The Hughleys, The Wayans Bros., Wife Swap, and Soul Food, and in the movies Drumline and Boyz N The Hood.
In 1981 Barnes played baseball catcher Josh Gibson of the Negro League in the television movie Don't Look Back: The Story of Leroy ‘Satchel' Paige with Lou Gossett, Jr. playing Paige.
The 2016 film Southside With You (about Barack and Michelle Obama's first date) features some of Barnes' artwork.
Barnes was married to Andrea Burnett from 1957 to 1965. They had two children, Deidre (b. 1957) and Michael (b. 1961). He was married to Janet Thaleen Norton from 1965 to 1983. They had three children: Sean (b. 1965), Erin (b. 1969) and Paige (b. 1972). He was married to Bernadine "Bernie" Gradney from 1984 until his death.
Barnes died on April 27, 2009 at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, California from blood cancer. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered in two places: at his hometown Durham, North Carolina, near the site of where his family home once stood, and at the beach in Carmel, California, one of his favorite cities.
In 1990 Barnes was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts by North Carolina Central University.
In 1993 Barnes was selected to the Black College Football 100th Year All-Time Team by the Sheridan Broadcasting Network.
In 1999 Barnes was bestowed The University Awar, the highest honor by The University of North Carolina Board of Governors.
"An artist paints his own reality."
"The artist uses creative visualization and the athlete uses the same thing... It's the muscle of the mind, that's the main muscle."
"I am bound by the strongest ties with the organic life of all people. And being an artist has created in me the desire to continually affirm beauty."
"The five years I lived in (the Fairfax district) a Los Angeles Jewish community led me to learn of their unyielding spiritual strength and internal sense of grandeur. I met people who had survived a hard school of struggle."
"My early paintings have all the rawness and passion of the (football) game."
"I was angry. I wanted to show and tell people what I had seen and felt. I wanted to show the dehumanization that is professional football. My only expression is through art. I painted until I had exhausted the hate. I had so many ideas that I couldn't put a canvas up quick enough."
"One day on the playing field, I looked up and the sun was breaking through the clouds, hitting the unmuddied areas on the uniforms, and I said, ‘that's beautiful!' I knew then that it was all over being a player. I was more interested in art. So I traded my cleats for canvas, my bruises for brushes, and put all the violence and power I had felt on the field into my paintings."
"Throughout my five seasons in the NFL, I remained at the deepest level of my being...an artist."
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