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ERNIE BARNES (1938 – 2009)

 

Ernie Barnes, former professional football player and painter, best known for his unique figurative style of painting and widely recognized as the foremost African American artist, has died.

 

Barnes died Monday night at Cedars Sinai Medical Center after a brief illness, said Luz Rodriguez, his longtime personal assistant and spokesperson.  He was 70.

 

His famous “Sugar Shack” dance scene that appeared on a Marvin Gaye album and the closing credits of the “Good Times” television show has been widely imitated and Barnes’ expressive style has influenced countless aspiring artists.

 

“Ernie Barnes is one of the premier figurative artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. His richly detailed paintings and drawings chronicling the lives of people have made a profound contribution to the contemporary history of American  art,” says Paul Von Blum, Senior Lecturer in African American Studies, Communication Studies, and Art History at University of California, Los Angeles.

 

“His depictions of life for over forty years elevated him to the top rank of African American artists in the United States.  His images of dignity, both reflecting and advancing the powerful visions of his mentor Charles White, have solidified his stature in the grand tradition of visual art, a reputation that will serve as a model for younger artists for generations to come.”

 

Barnes’ work is remarkable for his use of elongation and distortion to create the energy, power, grace, intensity and fluidity in his art.  But it was his sports background that served as a distinction as he fully understood the human anatomy on an intimate level to portray athletes and mannerisms in delayed motion.  Another unique feature was painting his subject’s eyes closed.  “We are blind to one another’s humanity,” he was often quoted.  “We fail to see the gifts and strengths in one another.”

 

Born Ernest Barnes, Jr. on July 15, 1938 to Ernest Sr. and Fannie Mae Geer Barnes during the Jim Crow era in Durham, North Carolina, his mother was employed to oversee the household staff  for a prominent attorney.  As a child, young Ernest would accompany her to work and was allowed to peruse the extensive collection of art books. 

           

While in junior high school, a teacher found the self-admitted fat, introverted young Barnes drawing in a notebook while hiding from the bullies who taunted him daily.  This teacher put him on a weightlifting program and in high school he excelled in both football and track and field.  Upon graduation, he was awarded 26 college scholarships.

 

Segregation prevented him from considering nearby University of North Carolina or Duke University, so he attended North Carolina College (now NC Central University) on a football scholarship and majored in art.   In 1959, he was drafted by the Washington Redskins who traded him to the then-World Champion Baltimore Colts football team when they discovered he was black.   He later played  offensive lineman for the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos.  In 1965, New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin recognized Barnes’ artistic potential and replaced his football salary of $13,500 for one season so he could devote himself “to just paint.”  One year later, Barnes made his debut in a critically acclaimed solo exhibition at Grand Central Art Galleries in Manhattan and officially retired from football. 

 

In his 1995 autobiography “From Pads to Palette,” Barnes wrote,“Throughout my five seasons in the arena of professional football, I remained at the deepest level of my being – an artist.” 

 

On a field trip as a college student to the newly-desegregated North Carolina Museum of Art, Barnes asked to see paintings by Negro artists.  The docent said, “Your people don’t express themselves that way.”  This fueled him to later create the traveling exhibition "The Beauty of the Ghetto" in the 1970s.  He felt it raised consciousness, established priorities and showed the world how "Black is beautiful."   The successful exhibition toured all major US cities, including a return to the NC Museum of Art, hosted by Governor James Hunt.

 

In 1984, he was commissioned by the Los Angeles Olympic Committee to create five paintings for the Games of the XXIII Olympiad.  His other notable sports commissions include “A Dream Unfolds,” for the National Basketball Association to commemorate their 50th anniversary, “Fastbreak” for Los Angeles Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, and paintings for the owners of the New Orleans Saints, Oakland Raiders and Boston Patriots football teams.  One of his teammates from the Baltimore Colts – and now owner of the Carolina Panthers Jerry Richardson –  commissioned Barnes to create a large painting, “Victory in Overtime,” that permanently hangs at the football stadium in Charlotte.

 

Barnes’ ability to capture the powerful energy and movement of sports earned him “America’s Best Painter of Sports” by the American Sports Art Museum in 2004.  “No other living American artist has done more to illuminate the world of the athlete and the drama of sports competition as this former athlete and world renown painter,” said Dr. Thomas P. Rosandich, President and CEO of the US Sports Academy.

 

In 2007, in a New York tribute exhibition sponsored by the National Football League and Time Warner, Time Warner Chairman & CEO Richard D. Parsons said,  “Imagine the courage and determination it took for a working class child from the segregated south in the 1940s to ignore all the naysayers and dare dream of becoming a successful artist.”

 

Over the years, his work embodied the best of Barnes’ personal beliefs and spirit, crossing political, racial and geographic boundaries.  Reaching far beyond the sports world, his collectors range from Ethel Kennedy to Kanye West, and from Seton Hall University to the California African American Museum.

 

Plans for his highly anticipated traveling exhibition, “Liberating Humanity From Within,” will continue.

 

Barnes is survived by his wife Bernie; brother James of Durham, NC; sons Michael and Sean; and daughters Deidre, Erin and Paige.

 

A private memorial is pending.  In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made in his name to Hillsides Home For Children in Pasadena, California.

 

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