Barnes, Ernie 1938–
Ernie Barnes 1938–
Ernie Barnes has been called one of the leading sports artists of the modern era, and Barnes’s own unique experiences have given his canvases an intensity not often found in works of fine art. His figures are muscular, larger than life, and always shown with their eyes closed. Barnes’s paintings, depicting all the glory and fear inside the moment of an athletic challenge, have won praise from critics and collectors alike. Writing in the New York Times, Diane K. Shah called his art “unusual and haunting.... Barnes’s portraits seem almost to look into an athlete’s soul.” A former professional football player in his younger days, Barnes knows only too well the demands that physical challenges place upon the soul. “Sports mirrors life perfectly,” Barnes told Shah. “You get knocked down, you have to come back, harder.”
Barnes was born in 1938, one of Ernest and Fannie Barnes’s three sons, and grew up in the tobacco town of Durham, North Carolina. His mother worked as a domestic servant, while the senior Ernest earned a good salary as a shipping clerk for one of the large cigarette companies; his son also remembers him as a sober man with a dollar. Because of this, the Barnes family lived in a nicer house than some of their neighbors, and could afford to give young Ernie music lessons. But Barnes suffered the taunts of classmates as a result. Adding to this misery was his large size— “short, fat, round” is how Barnes described himself as a child to Ebony writer Louie Robinson— and his mother’s inclination to dress him in fancy clothes. On rainy mornings a cab would be called to take him to school, which only further alienated him from his classmates. One teacher even used to let him out of school fifteen minutes before the bell so he could avoid getting beat up on the way home. Drawing was his only solace. During recess and lunch he would hide in the bathrooms with his pen and paper, and he once said that these two prized possessions were his only friends during this time in his life.
By the time Barnes reached junior high school he had grown quite large, with the excess weight disguising a potentially powerful build. He was urged to try out for football, won a spot, but then quit after the first few
At a Glance…
Born 1938, in Durham, NC; son of Ernest E. (a shipping clerk) and Fannie (a domestic servant) Barnes; married three times; children: Deidre, Sean, Erin, Paige Kimberley, and one other, Education: Attended North Carolina Central University, c. 1957-60.
Career: Professional football player and artist. Played lineman position for the New York Titans, c. 1961, the San Diego Chargers, 1962, the Denver Broncos, 1963-64, and in the Canadian Football League c. 1965. First exhibition of art work was at New York City’s Grand Central Art Gallery, 1966; has also exhibited paintings at the California Museum of Science and Industry, Los Angeles, c. 1972. Barnes has also acted in films, including two from the early 1970s, No. 1 and Doctors’Wives,
grueling practices. “I had never had the experience of being exhausted, then being forced to keep on going,” Barnes told Shah in the New York Times. “It didn’t make any sense to me.” A sympathetic teacher decided to challenge Barnes, and urged him to start lifting weights, and he then started to shed his excess pounds. By the time Barnes graduated from high school he was a star athlete in football and track and was offered 26 college athletic scholarships.
Barnes decided on North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University where he played football and majored in art. He left school before graduating in 1960 when he was drafted by Washington Redskins, who immediately traded him to the Baltimore Colts. With insufficient training to play pro ball, Barnes didn’t make the final cut and was dropped from the Colts’ lineup before the season began. He was then signed by the New York Titans as an offensive guard, but it was an amateurish team despite its league status. Barnes called it “a circus of ineptitude” in the interview with the New York Times. “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.”
Throughout the first half of the 1960s Barnes played for a succession of teams, including the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos, and finished out his career with a Canadian Football League team before retiring in 1966 with a broken ankle. They were an intense few years, however. Barnes remembered being shocked by the way in which players were forced to mentally transform themselves before a game—metamorphosing from normal men with families into machines programmed to inflict physical damage to the opposing team. He witnessed star players become violently ill before the game because of this stress.
In another incident, Barnes was present when a Titans teammate collapsed from heat exhaustion after a game in Houston; after the friend died two days later, Barnes demanded to be let out of his contract with the organization. The profit-oriented nature of the game had disillusioned him terribly by the time he retired. He earned less than $14,000 a year, while rookies were receiving three times that amount, plus a $50,000 signing bonus. “Eventually, the business aspect of it killed the beauty of being an athlete for me,” Barnes told Newsweek in 1984. He would later write I Hate the Game I Love, a book about his experiences in pro football that never found a publisher.
During his years as a professional athlete, Barnes continued to pursue his real love—art. Teammates even nicknamed him “Big Rembrandt.” With few career options open to him when he retired—though only in his mid-twenties—and with a young family to support, Barnes decided to test his luck. He flew to Los Angeles with some of his paintings, checked into a motel, and then walked several miles to the office of San Diego Chargers co-owner Barron Hilton, since he had no money for a cab. He proposed to Hilton that the American Football League, his former employer, put him on retainer as their official artist. To try him out, Hilton commissioned a work for $500, but liked it enough that he doubled the payment when Barnes delivered the work. Unfortunately, the artist’s deal with the AFL fell though after a change in management, but another team owner extended Barnes a helping hand in sympathy: New York Jets mogul Sonny Werblin put him on a retainer to paint for his personal collection, and Werblin also arranged a show of Barnes’s work in Manhattan. The canvases—full of muscular, fluid athletes—were a hit with several art critics, and Barnes’s second career was launched.
At another early show, Barnes sold all 18 paintings, and was soon winning commissions from well-known names in the entertainment industry, including Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, and Flip Wilson. This period of his work was marked by Barnes’s biting, caustic depictions of pro athletes. Works with titles like The American War Game depicted the savage nature of football, and Barnes would even paint his players with fangs and Nazi helmets. “I was reaching for the absurdity of what men can be turned into with football as an excuse,” Barnes said of this period of his work in an interview with Franz Lidz of Sports Illustrated
Over the next decade Barnes’s palette of source material segued from sports to urban scenes. One work to blend the two themes was called Dreams: a youngster is clutching his football in his sleep, in a bedroom of an obviously impoverished household where there are holes in the plaster. “I’m maturing as an artist in my thinking,” Barnes told Ebony in 1973. “I’ve relaxed emotionally. I’m now looking at the American scene. I’m a historical painter in a sense, but my history is of my own times.” Barnes also began delving into depicting the seedier side of life, but conveying its warmth and vibrancy of it nonetheless in his paintings. One well-regarded exhibit from the early 1970s was called “The Beauty of the Ghetto.” At the time, his canvases were commanding up to $30,000 apiece.
It was during this period that Barnes’s works became a well-known sight on prime-time television. With the groundbreaking CBS sitcom Good Times, television producer Norman Lear launched the first show to thoughtfully portray urban African American life through the fictional Evans family. The Evans’s eldest son, J.J.—played by comedian Jimmie Walker—was an aspiring artist, and Barnes was hired by Lear to “ghost” the paintings for the show. For the several years in the mid-to late 1970s that Good Times was on the air, Barnes’s canvases often stood on a makeshift easel in the Evans’s living room in their Chicago public-housing apartment, and the closing credits of the show featured a mural also done by Barnes.
Barnes’s work became known for several signature elements outside of just the fluid athleticism of his human forms. The faces of these figures were often obscured, and if not, their eyes remained closed. “I won’t paint people with their eyes open,” Barnes explained to Shah in the New York Times interview. “We don’t see each other, we are blind to each other’s humanity.” Once accused of confining his talents to black themes and figures, Barnes eventually settled on a neutral skin shade that was difficult to tag, given the intensity of the background colors. In his effort to show a more indistinct, blurred side of the human color spectrum, “I’ve tried to find a color that makes people people,” he told Shah.
Perhaps the greatest honor of Barnes’s career came when he was chosen as the official artist of the 1984 Olympic Summer Games in Los Angeles. At first he had been rejected, passed over even for inclusion on a list of candidates that boasted David Hockney and Robert Rauschenberg—but Barnes persevered in presenting his unique qualifications: none of the other artists had ever played a sport professionally. Senator Jack Kemp, himself a former pro footballer, successfully championed Barnes’s cause to the selection committee. Barnes produced images for five posters, which were then sold in limited editions and used to publicize the Games. In this case, Barnes had considered painting the anonymous athletes with their eyes open for once, but decided not to. “Even they aren’t fully human until they’ve applied their insight to the ups and downs of life outside the athletic field,” Barnes told Newsweek.
During his first few years as a professional artist, Barnes was unable to paint without people nearby. In the 1973 interview in Ebony, his second wife told Robinson that “even when we had company, we’d look around and little by little Ernie would have moved his paints and easel into the living room.” The artist has been married three times and has five children. He lives in Studio City, California, and has recently penned his autobiography, From Pads to Palette. His last honor was the commission of a painting for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA, unveiled in 1997. Entitled The Dream Unfolds, the large work is an allegory of the history of the sport, from its humble beginnings to international glory. “My aim is to refresh the heart, to put people in touch with themselves,” Barnes explained to Shah in the New York Times interview. “I look at every individual with the hope of finding their basic dignity, humor, kindness and humanity.”
Grand Central Art Galleries, New York, 1966.
California Museum of Science & Industry, LA, c. 1972.
Ebony, March 1973, pp. 40-50.
Essence, July 1984, pp. 99-100.
Jet, January 13, 1997, p. 51.
New York Times, May 7, 1984.
Newsweek, March 26, 1984, p. 12.
People, July 9, 1984, pp. 55-57.
Sports Illustrated, June 25, 1984, p. 7.
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