Ernest “Ernie” 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 the Jim Crow era in “the bottom” community of Hayti, Durham, North Carolina. His father, Ernest E. Barnes, Sr. (1900–1966) worked as a shipping clerk for Liggett Myers Tobacco Company. His mother, Fannie Mae Geer (1905–2004) oversaw the household staff for prominent attorney Frank Fuller, Jr.
On days when Fannie allowed “June” (Barnes’ nickname to his family and childhood friends) to accompany her to work, Barnes had the opportunity to peruse the art books and listen to the classical music in Fuller’s study. 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, Rubens, and Michelangelo. When he entered junior high, 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 school away from the other students. He was caught one day in a quiet area by Tommy Tucker, the masonry teacher who was also the weightlifting coach and a former athlete. Tucker was intrigued with Barnes' drawings. 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 instill in Barnes discipline and dedication that would permeate his life. In his senior year at Hillside High School, Barnes became the captain of the football team and state champion in the shot put and discus throw.
In 1956 Barnes graduated from high school with 26 athletic scholarship offers. Because of segregation, he was prevented from considering nearby Duke or the University of North Carolina. His mother promised him a car if he lived at home and attended the all-Black North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University) which was then located across the street from his high school. He enrolled there on a full athletic scholarship and majored in art. His track coach was Dr. Leroy T. Walker. Barnes played the football positions of tackle and center at NCC, and was selected to the All-Conference team.
At age 18, on a college art class field trip to the newly-desegregated North Carolina Museum of Art, Barnes inquired where he could find “paintings by Negro artists.” The docent responded, “Your people don’t express themselves that way.” Poetic justice prevailed 22 years later in 1978 when Barnes returned to the museum for a solo exhibition, hosted by North Carolina Governor James Hunt.
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 Award, the highest honor by The University of North Carolina Board of Governors.
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.
Later that month, on December 27, 1959, Barnes was invited to see the Colts’ NFL Championship Game vs. the New York Giants at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, 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, who Barnes called "the greatest defensive tackle in the game."
After he returned to the hotel that evening, and without making any preliminary sketches, he went directly to a blank canvas. Using a palette knife, “painting in quick, direct movements hoping to capture the vision...before it evaporated,” Barnes said, 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.
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 came out, it referred to him as “Ernie Barnes,” which changed his name and life forever.
Titans of New York
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.”
San Diego Chargers
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, joining the NFL. It was there Barnes met teammate Jack Kemp, and the two 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’ first television interview as an artist was in 1962 on The Regis Philbin Show on KGTV in San Diego. It was Philbin's first talk show. The next time the two men would see each other would be 45 years later when Philbin attended a tribute to Barnes in New York.
Midway through Barnes’ second season with the Chargers, after a series of injuries, Barnes was cut. He was then signed to the Denver Broncos.
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.
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.”
Canadian Football League
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, in effect, 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. 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 undoubtedly an unusual post 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”
In 1971 Barnes wrote a series of essays (illustrated with his own drawings) in the Gridiron newspaper titled I Hate the Game I Love (with Neil Amdur). 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.
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.”
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.
In homage to his father, Barnes would frame his paintings in distressed wood. In his autobiography, Barnes wrote of his father “with so little education, had worked so hard for us. His legacy to me was his effort and that was plenty. He knew absolutely nothing about art.” A few weeks before Barnes' first solo exhibition, and as his father lay in the hospital after suffering a stroke, Barnes was at his parents' Durham home and noticed the unkept condition of the usually well-maintained backyard. Barnes wrote about the “once-white fence was greying. One day, 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 are 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...”
In 1984 Barnes was appointed the Official Sports Artist for the Games of the XXIII Olympiad. Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee President Peter V. Ueberroth said Barnes “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 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.
In 1996 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 inaugural season and hangs permanently in the stadium owner’s suite.
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.
According to Barnes, he created the original version of Sugar Shack after reflecting upon his childhood, during which he was not "able to go to a dance." In a 2008 interview, Barnes said, "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."
On the original Sugar Shack, Barnes included his hometown Durham, North Carolina radio station WSRC on a banner. He incorrectly listed the frequency at 620. 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 Sugar Shack with a dance interpretation of the painting.
Music album covers
Barnes’ work appears on the following album covers:
- Sugar Shack on Marvin Gaye’s 1976 I Want You
- Disco on self-titled 1978 Faith, Hope & Charity
- Donald Byrd and 125th Street, NYC on self-titled 1979 album
- Late Night DJ on Curtis Mayfield’s 1980 Something to Believe In
- The Maestro on The Crusaders' 1984 Ghetto Blaster
- Head Over Heels on The Crusaders’ 1986 The Good and Bad Times
- Sugar Shack on Camp Lo's 1997 Uptown Saturday Night
- In Rapture on B.B. King’s 2000 Making Love is Good For You
- Sugar Shack on Lil B's 2011 I'm Gay (I'm Happy)
Other notable art and exhibitions
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. Dignitaries, athletes and celebrities, including Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, the Hon. Jack Kemp and Ethel Kennedy each hosted several shows.
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.”
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 $1000 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 was 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.
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 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 titled Liberating Humanity From Within which featured a majority of paintings he created in the last three years of his life. Plans will continue. The exhibition will travel throughout the country and abroad.
Television & Movies
Barnes appeared on a 1967 episode of the game show What's My Line? The panelists correctly guessed Barnes was the professional football player-turned-artist.
In 1971 Barnes, along with Mike Henry, created the Super Comedy Bowl, a CBS television variety 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 “created” by the character JJ are works by Ernie Barnes. However a few images, including a Black Jesus, were not by Barnes. Sugar Shack made its debut on Good Times when it was used during the opening and closing credits during the show’s fourth season. In the fifth season it was only used in the closing credits. In the sixth season, Sugar Shack was only used in the opening credits for the first eight episodes and in a few closing credits during that season. In the fifth and sixth seasons, 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).
In addition to his parents, Barnes was preceded in death by his half-brother Benjamin B. Rogers, Jr. (1920–1970). His younger brother James (b. 1942) resides in Durham, North Carolina. Barnes has five children: Deidre (b. 1957) and Michael (b. 1961) with first wife Andrea Burnett (1957–1965); and Sean (b. 1965), Erin (b. 1969) and Paige (b. 1972) with second wife Janet Thaleen Norton (1965–1983). He was also married to Bernadine "Bernie" Gradney (1984 - to death).
Barnes died on April 27, 2009 at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, California from a rare blood disorder. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered in 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.
“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.”
- Barnes, Ernie (1995). From Pads to Palette, Waco, TX: WRS Publishing. ISBN 1-56796-064-2
- Maher, Charles (May 7, 1968). "Artist's Portrait". Los Angeles Times.
- "Rembrandt of the Broncos". Empire Magazine. December 6, 1964.
- "The Beauty of the Ghetto" catalogue, Grand Central Art Galleries, New York, 1990 "Artist Statement"
- "Black Centennial Team". USA Today. January 25, 1993.
- "Ernie Barnes: An Athletic Artist". New York Times. May 7, 1984.
- Clark, N.P. (July 20, 1960). "Little Bunch of Colt Rookies Turn Up Big". The Baltimore News-Post.
- The Voice Newspapers. 1962-1963.
- Ridgely, Roberta (February 1962). "The Times are Out of Joints". San Diego Magazine.
- Keen, Harold (July 1963). "San Diego's Racial Powder Keg". San Diego Magazine.
- "Two 'Gold Medalists' in Art, Barnes, Parmenter, Coming Here". Mobile Register. March 13, 1985.
- The National Sports Daily. December 14, 1990.
- Resonance, The Company of Art newsletter, 1996
- Sports Illustrated. November 21, 1966.
- Larry Merchant (November 19, 1966). "The Painter". New York Post.
- Ernie Barnes with Neil Amdur (1971). "I Hate the Game I Love". Gridiron.
- Durham Morning Herald. November 1, 1973.
- Interview, "Our World with Black Enterprise"
- "Neo-mannerist paintings by Ernie Barnes at Grand Central". Antiques and The Arts Weekly. November 9, 1990.
- Frank Getlein (1989). "A Critical Perspective on the Art of Ernie Barnes". Retrieved October 26, 2010.
- Interview, "Personal Diaries" with Ed Gordon, BET, 1990
- "An Olympic Artist With A Message". Los Angeles Times. May 24, 1984.
- Long Beach Press Telegram. March 15, 1984.
- "1984 & 2004 Sports Artist of the Year, Ernie Barnes, America's El Greco". Retrieved October 26, 2010.
- "Biography". Retrieved October 26, 2010.
- Oakland Tribune - Top Black Painter Exhibits in Oakland - August 14, 2002. oaklandtribune.com. Retrieved on October 26, 2010
- Ernie Barnes Interview ( 英語 ). Soul Museum: Ernie Barnes. Retrieved on October 26, 2010.
- Neal, Mark Anthony. Review: I Want You. PopMatters. Retrieved on October 26, 2010.
- Ritz (2003), pp. 2-3.
- The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. September 16, 1973.
- "Billboard Art". Los Angeles Times. May 29, 1992 accessdate=October 30, 2010.
- David Wharton (July 10, 1992). "Street Art". Los Angeles Times.
- "African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, II". Retrieved October 26, 2010.
- Elizabeth Wellington (May 8, 1998). "'The Advocate' will plead a special case". The News & Observer.
- Artist Statement in Commemorative catalogue for "The Advocate," May 7, 1998. Retrieved October 2010
- "Honorary Artwork". The Philadelphia Tribune. July 12, 2002.
- "Back to Black - Art, Cinema and the Racial Imaginary". Whitechapel Gallery. 2005. Retrieved October 28, 2010.
- "Kanye West denies angel likeness in painting". July 7, 2008. Retrieved October 26, 2010.
- "Remembering Ernie Barnes". CNN. November 27, 2009. Retrieved October 26, 2010.
- "'Super Comedy Bowl' Features Stars, Players". Los Angeles Times. January 9, 1971.
- Los Angeles Times. November 23, 1971.
- Los Angeles Times. January 9, 1972.
- Weber, Bruce (April 30, 2009). "Ernie Barnes, Artist and Athlete, Dies at 70". The New York Times. Retrieved October 26, 2010.
- Durham Sun. April 11, 1973.
- Durham Morning Herald. June 6, 1971.
- Historic Preservation Society of Durham (2008). Brighter Leaves. BPR Publishers.
- Hills, Patricia; Renn, Melissa (2005). Syncopated Rhythms. Boston University Art Gallery.
- Von Blum, Paul (2004). Resistance, Dignity and Pride. University of California; Los Angeles. Center for African American Studies. CAAS Publications.
- Tobias, Todd (2004). Charging Through The AFL: Los Angeles And Sand Diego Chargers' Football In The 1960s. Turner Publishing Company (KY).
- Hurd, Michael (2000). Black College Football, 1892-1992: One Hundred Years Of History, Education & Pride. Donning Company Publishers.
- Carroll, Bob (1999). Total Football. HarperCollins.
- Trocki, Philip K. (1998). Spell It Out. Pearson Prentice Hall.
- Powell, Richard J. (1997). Black Art And Culture In The 20th Century (World Of Art). Thames & Hudson.
- Riggs, Thomas (1997). St. James Guide To Black Artists Edition 1 (St. James Guide To Black Artists). Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. St. James Press.
- Barnes, Ernie (1994). From Pads To Palette. WRS Publishing.
- Anderson, Jean Bradley (1990). Durham County. Duke University Press.
- Bradbury, Ray (1985). The Art of Playboy (Ray Bradbury). A. van der Marck Editions.