Saturday, February 9, 2013

Today In Black History - Ernie Barnes

July 15, 1938 - April 27, 2009

Considered one of the leading African-American painters and is well-known for his unique style of elongation and movement, Ernie Barnes was also a former professional football player, actor and author.

Ernest Eugene Barnes, Jr. was born during the Jim Crow era in “The Bottom” community of 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 a prominent Durham attorney, Frank Fuller, Jr.

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 the 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. He 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. 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 Hillside High 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 so he attended the all-Black North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University) which was located across the street from his high school. At North Carolina College he majored in art on a full athletic scholarship. His track coach was the famed 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 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 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 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 capturethe 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 appeared, 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 their seventh game on October 9, 1960 at Jeppesen Stadium, his teammate Howard Glenn died. Barnes asked for his release two days later. The cause of Glenn's death was reported as a broken neck. 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 decided to accept 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 National Football League. It was there Barnes met teammate Jack Kemp, and the two would share a very close lifelong 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 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 the tribute to Barnes in New York City.

Denver Broncos
Midway through Barnes’ second season with the Chargers, he was cut after a series of injuries. He was then signed to the Denver Broncos.

Barnes was often fined by Denver Coach Jack Faulkner when caught sketching during team meetings. One of the sketches that he was fined $100 sold years later for $1000.

Many times during breaks in 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.

Barnes was called “Big Rembrandt” by his Denver teammates, who would later learn that Barnes and the Dutch artist share the birthday of July 15th.

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”

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 (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.

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 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.

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.

Other notable sports commissions include paintings for the New Orleans Saints, Oakland Raiders and Boston Patriots football team owners.

"Sugar Shack"
Barnes created the painting Sugar Shack in the early 1970s. It gained international exposure when it was used on the Good Times television series and on a 1976 Marvin Gaye album.
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.

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 1981 Barnes played the famed 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., who played Paige.

Barnes died on April 27, 2009 at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, California from a rare blood disorder.[43] 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.

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