Ernie Barnes was and still is one of the most popular and well-respected black artists today. Born and raised in Durham, North Carolina, in 1938, during the time the south as segregated, Ernie Barnes was not expected to become a famous artist. However, as a young boy, Barnes would, “often [accompany] his mother to the home of the prominent attorney, Frank Fuller, Jr., where she worked as a [housekeeper]” (Artist Vitae, The Company of Art, 1999). Fuller was able to spark Barnes’ interest in art when he was only seven years old. Fuller told him about the various schools of art, his favorite painters, and the museums he visited (Barnes, 1995, p. 7). Fuller further introduced Barnes to the works of such artists as, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Correggio, which later influenced Barnes’ mannerist style of painting.
As a young boy Barnes was “introverted and shy” (p. 8). He wasn’t able to fight like the other young boys his age, and quickly became a punching bag for bullies. The after school brawls became so severe that Barnes’ mother asked his principal to allow him to leave school fifteen minutes early everyday. After viewing the extent of Barnes’ bruises, the principal had no choice but to comply. On the other hand, once the other children learned that Barnes could draw they no longer laughed and made fun of him, “They just watched [him draw] in silent awe” (p. 8).
When Barnes entered junior high school, he became interested in dating and knew that the only way he could get attention from the girls was to play junior varsity football. Therefore, he joined the team, and was dubbed too sensitive for the game, and later quit the team. However, when Barnes entered high school, he was put on a bodybuilding program, by the high schools weight lifting coach, Mr. Tucker, who showed a genuine interest in Barnes’ drawings. Through Mr. Tucker’s constant encouragement, Barnes was able to reinvent himself, graduating from high school with twenty-six football scholarships, as well as the respect of the community (Artist Vitae, 1999).
Before Barnes went to college, at North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University), he impregnated a young girl and was forced to marry her in order to save face, and his first child was born in 1957. Although Barnes’ marriage was not a successful one, he adored his newborn baby girl, and was heartbroken when his wife left him, taking his daughter with her. At North Carolina College, Barnes majored in art, and developed his own style (Artist Vitae, 1999). When Barnes was a freshman in college he went on a field trip to the newly desegregated North Carolina Museum of Art. At the museum Barnes noticed that there weren’t any works by black artist displayed, and when he asked the guide where the black artists were exhibited, the guide responded, “your people don’t express themselves this way” (Artist Vitae, 1999). That negative response encouraged Barnes to work hard at becoming an artist. However, football became Barnes’ life, since his neo-mannerist form of expression was contrary to the abstract paintings, which were popular at the time.
In 1960, Barnes became the 10th draft pick for the then world famous Baltimore Colts. Barnes continued to play football for four years with various teams such as the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos (Artist Vitae, 1999). In 1965, Barnes retired form pro football and began devoting his time to developing his art form. Nevertheless, since Barnes hadn’t saved much money from his football career, he was forced to obtain a job as a construction worker, in order to support himself, his wife and their two children. This was Barnes’ second marriage and like the first, it quickly ended in divorce.
Barnes eventually moved to Los Angeles where he became a struggling artist. He was constantly broke and didn’t know where his next meal would come from. In spite of this, Barnes got an idea to try and become the Official Artist for the American Football League (AFL), after reading an article in the local newspaper, which featured a letter from Van Gogh to his brother Theo (Barnes, 1995, p. 84). To say the least, the letter inspired Barnes and he pitched his idea to Barron Hilton, former hotel chairmen, and San Diego Charger team owner. Hilton was delighted by the idea and suggested that he present his idea to the AFL football team owners. After Barnes’ presentation, the late New York Jets owner, David Werblin decided to support him, and invited him to New York, where Barnes had his first solo exhibition at the Grand Central Art Galleries (Artist Vitae, 1999).
Barnes became a very popular artist among African-Americans and the rest of society. Americans became familiar with Barnes work through the television show “Good Times”, and well as his appointment as the Official Artist of the 23rd Olympiad at Los Angeles (The October Gallery, About the Artist 2000). Barnes’ paintings became so critically acclaimed that the late poet Mbembe Milton Smith, who was the first graduate to earn a double major in English and Creative Writing in the masters program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, wrote a poem about his painting, “High Aspirations” (Huyett, Mbembe, 2000):
talkin’ ’bout an aesthetic experience,
your painting hit me like a lightning bolt—
the gaunt arms, the long, slender youth
muscled by the desire for social ascension
leaping above a bushel basket that’s fashioned
to make a hoop, the young man is shoeless, his form perfect, the basketball cupped in his gigantic hand,
a stark and rustic southern shack in the background,
everything moving away from it, up ; beyond.
; this kid with the ball ain’t playin’.
he’s too lean & intense for nonsense.
mind and body chiseled to score in a homemade basket
at least a foot higher than the rulebook allows.
plainly the kid is a winner.
plainly your painting is a graphic of black hope.
i’m cheering for us, cheering with all my heart, brother(Huyett, 2000).
Although Barnes went through many trials and tribulations before becoming a renowned artist, he never gave up on his dream. Currently, Barnes’ paintings are some of the most sought after paintings in America. Today, Barnes lives comfortably in Los Angeles with his wife, Bernie, and continues to paint works of art in his home studio.
Chronological Chart of Ernie Barnes
? 1938: Born July 15, Ernest Eugene Barnes, Jr. in Durham, North Carolina to Ernest and Fannie Mae Geer Barnes.
? 1953-56: Attends Hillside High School, Durham. Graduated with 26 athletic scholarships. Paints his first mural in the student cafeteria.
? 1956-59: Studies art at North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University).
? 1959: Student exhibition, North Carolina College, Durham. Begins professional football career. Drafted 10th round by Baltimore Colts.
? 1960-62: Offensive guard, San Diego Chargers.
? 1962-63: Writer and illustrator, San Diego Magazine and The Voice newspaper.
? 1963-64: Offensive guard, Denver Broncos.
? 1965: Retires from professional football.
? 1966: Appointed Official Artist by the American Football League. Preview exhibitions in San Diego and the Incurable Collectors Gallery, New York. First solo exhibition, Grand Central Art Galleries, New York. Hosted by Barron Hilton and David Werblin.
? 1968: Solo exhibition, The Sports Art of Ernie Barnes, McKenzie Gallery, Los Angeles. Hosted by Tom Harmon.
? 1969: Preview exhibition, McKenzie Gallery, Los Angeles. Hosted by Charlton Heston.
? 1970: Preview exhibition, McKenzie Gallery, Los Angeles. Hosted by Adela Rogers St. John.
? 1971: Solo exhibition, Agra Gallery, Washington, DC. Hosted by Congressmen John Conyers and Jack Kemp. Solo exhibition, Elizabeth City State University, North Carolina.
? 1972: Solo exhibition, Heritage Gallery, Los Angeles. Solo exhibition, The Beauty of the Ghetto, California Science ; Industry Museum, Los Angeles. Hosted by Mayor Tom Bradley. Solo exhibition, The Beauty of the Ghetto, Atlanta High Memorial Museum. Hosted by Mayor Maynard Jackson. Solo exhibition, The Beauty of the Ghetto, North Carolina Central University Art Museum. Hosted by Mayor James Hawkins.
? 1974: Solo exhibition, The Beauty of the Ghetto, Orr’s Gallery, San Diego, California. Hosted by Senator Lionel Van Deerlin. Solo exhibition, The Beauty of the Ghetto, California Museum of Science & Industry, Los Angeles. Hosted by Mayor Tom Bradley. Solo exhibition, The Beauty of the Ghetto, Museum of African Art, Washington, DC. Hosted by Ethel Kennedy and Brig Owens.
? 1974-79: Paintings featured on CBS television series, Good Times.
? 1975: Solo exhibition, The Beauty of the Ghetto, Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Center, Brooklyn, New York. Hosted by Ethel Kennedy.
? 1976: Solo exhibition, The Beauty of the Ghetto, The Grant Wood Museum of Art, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Exhibits at North Carolina Central University Art Museum, Durham.
? 1977: Solo exhibition, Heritage Gallery, Los Angeles, California.
? 1978: Solo exhibition, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh. Hosted by Gov. James Hunt. Solo exhibition, Athlete As An Artist, Spectrum Fine Art Gallery, New York.
? 1979: Solo exhibition, Ten Who Remember, Seagram’s, New York. Hosted by Edgar Bronfman. Solo exhibition, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh. Hosted by H.M. Michaux. Solo exhibition, North Carolina Art Society Collectors Gallery.
? 1983: Exhibits at Spectrum Fine Art Gallery, New York.
? 1984: Appointed Official Artist, Games of the XXIII Olympiad, Los Angeles, California. Solo exhibition, Victor’s Crown, Heritage Gallery, Los Angeles, California. Solo exhibition, Victor’s Crown, Calvert Collection, Washington, DC. Hosted by Congressman Jack Kemp.
? 1985: Named first Sports Artist of the Year, United States Sports Academy, Daphne, Alabama.
? 1987: Completes “Fastbreak”, commission for National Basketball Association and the Los Angeles Lakers.
? 1988: Completes “The Metamorphosis of Rocky”, commission for Sylvester Stallone, Los Angeles. Honoree, Museum of African American Art, Los Angeles, California.
? 1990: Receives honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts Degree, North Carolina Central University. Solo exhibition, The Beauty of the Ghetto, Grand Central Art Galleries, New York.
? 1992: Completes “Meeting the Challenge”, commission by Robert E. Brennan for Seton Hall University, New Jersey. Completes “A Dream Confirmed”, commission for St. Benedict’s Prep School, Newark, New Jersey. “Growth Through Limits” serves as inspirational billboard, Los Angeles, California.
? 1993: Named to the All-Time Black College Football Team, by Sheridan Black Network. Private commissions (5)
? 1995: Completes autobiography, “From Pads to Palette”. Group traveling exhibition: 20th Century Masterworks of African-American Artists. Contributions To Humanity award, United Negro College Fund. Private commissions (8).
? 1996: Completes “Victory In Overtime”, commission by Jerry Richardson for the Carolina Panthers football team. Completes “A Dream Unfolds”, commission for National Basketball Association commemorating their 50th anniversary. Private commissions (5). Receives Treasure of Los Angeles award, Central City Association.
? 1998: “The Advocate” donated by Donna Arnold to North Carolina Central University School of Law. Begins paintings for traveling exhibition, Visual Poem of Human Experience. Private commissions (6).
? 1999: Private commissions (2). Continues to work on paintings for traveling exhibition, Visual Poems of Human Experience (The Company of Art, Chronology 1999).