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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Ernie Barnes

In Remembrance,  2002, Ernie Barnes
If the name above doesn't exactly ring a bell as an artist, perhaps it might if you're a football fan. Ernie Barnes was an artist who became an athlete; who became a professional football player; and then in retirement from a sport which literally eats young men for dinner with hardly a satisfying burp, Ernie Barnes once more became an artist. As his father might have put it, that's a "rough row to hoe" for any man. But for a talented black artist, struggling to overcome the Jim Crow era of the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s, rising from the all-black community of Hayti, just outside Durham, North Carolina...remarkable seems an inadequate expression.

The world of Ernie Barnes. At left, Sugar Shack, the cover
art for singer, Marvin Gaye's album of the same title.
Ernest Eugene Barnes was born in 1938, the son of a tobacco company shipping clerk. His mother was a maid for a wealthy attorney. Ernie's first exposure to art came as his mother took him to work with her where he bided his time carefully paging through all the art books in the lawyer's extensive library. As a growing child, Ernie was the chubby, gentle sort, bullied by other boys his age in his segregated elementary school. There he withdrew with his sketch pad, sharpening his drawing skills while escaping the hardships of growing up black in a white world that detested his presence and a black street world in which sameness was a vital virtue. His art, however, was to serve as the key to a new life.

Sunday's Hero, Ernie Barnes--the brutal struggle within the struggle.
In the early 1950s, his school weight-lifting coach saw Ernie's work and embraced, both it and the artist behind it, inspiring the boy to hone his hefty body mass into that of an athlete; at the time, one of the few opportunity pathways opening up for young black men from the South. By the time Ernie graduated from high school in 1956, the football team captain and state champion discus and shot-put thrower had amassed a total of 26 college scholarships, giving him free rein to pursue an education as an artist in virtually any school he chose...provided it was black. He chose North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University) which happened to be just across the street from his high school. Once more he was as outstanding in football as art. On a field trip to the North Carolina Museum of Art, he inquired as to where the work of black artists might be found. The response: "Your people don't express themselves that way."
Ernie Barnes, the official artist for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
After college, Ernie Banks was drafted by the Washington Redskins...until they found out his skin was the wrong color. The Baltimore Colts weren't so prejudice. Over the course of his football career, Barnes also played for the Los Angeles Chargers (now San Diego Chargers), and the Denver Broncos, ending his career playing in the Canadian Football League in 1965. Then he went back to the NFL as a salaried player, though this time in position before an easel as the league's official artist. A few years later, in 1984, Barnes became the official artist for the XXIII Olympiad Los Angeles games. In fact, Ernie Barnes achieved much more fame and success as a painter than he ever did in football. His first one-man show at a prestigious New York gallery in 1966 sold out. Barnes' distinctive, slightly elongated style has been termed by critics as "Neo-mannerist," influenced by artists such as El Greco, Raphael, Michelangelo and the more recent sports artist, George Bellows. Likewise, if lawsuits for copyright infringement are any indicator, Barnes work has influence numerous other sports artists seeking to imitate the artist turned football player turned artist's success. Incidentally, the same North Carolina Museum of Art, which had spurned black artists as late as the 1960s, in 1978, opted to host a solo-exhibition of the artwork of Ernie Barnes.

Ernie Barnes' art, Growth Through Limits, formed the basis of a billboard following the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.


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