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From Pads to Palette - NFL Lineman turned Painter: Ernie Barnes

Three Red Linemen, 1966

Acrylic on Canvas

Ernie Barnes (b. 1939) was an NFL player turned Studio Artist whose distinctive style depicts bodies in motion.

Photo credit: Ernie Barnes Family Trust

Barnes was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina. As a child, he was an incessant drawer. He would often accompany his mother to her work as a maid for an attorney, who happened to be an art enthusiast and collector. He introduced Barnes to historical art figures through books in his library.

As Barnes entered adolescence, his interests turned to sports, where he excelled as a football player and shot putter. He accepted a scholarship to play football at North Carolina Central University, in Durham. He majored in art.

At NCCU Barnes studied under sculptor Ed Wilson, who taught Barnes the importance of drawing from life experience (pun intended). When Barnes had a creative block, Wilson drove him to his old neighborhood and imparted words that stuck with Barnes. “Art is about life," Wilson said, "and how you feel about it. It’s not something that’s separate and apart from life. You serve as being a kind of reporter of your discoveries and opinions about life. Don’t ever tell me that you don’t know what to paint. That’s like telling me you have no opinion, that you don’t think or feel about anything.”

Double Dutch, 1989

Acrylic on Canvas

Barnes was drafted by the Baltimore Colts and played 6 seasons with 4 different NFL teams. A year after his retirement, Barnes met New York Jets Owner Sonny Werblin, who offered to sponsor a solo exhibition for Barnes in New York.

Shortly before the exhibition, Barnes’ father suffered a stroke. Barnes drove cross-country from California to North Carolina to be with his father in his final days. While he cared for his ailing father, Barnes prepared for the exhibition in his childhood backyard, where his father had maintained a picket fence. The fence was still standing strong, but had weathered over the years. Barnes decided to use this fence to frame his works for the exhibition, as a tribute to his father. The exhibition was a success, and launched Barnes’ four-decade career as a professional artist.

Sugar Shack, 1976

Acrylic on Canvas

Barnes teamed up with show producer Norman Lear to create artwork for the hit 70’s sitcom Good Times. One of the show’s main characters, James Evans, Jr. (aka J.J.), was an aspiring artist. All of the work featured in the show was created by Barnes, including "Sugar Shack", Barnes’ most well-known piece.

"Sugar Shack" was inspired by a scene that a 13-year-old Barnes witnessed at a concert hall in Durham. He was shocked to see adults dancing so freely. "It was the first time my innocence met with the sins of dance." The piece was featured in Good Times and also graced the cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You. The music video for Anderson Paak's 2016 hit song “Come Down” was inspired by the piece.

Ballroom Soul, 1978

Acrylic on Canvas

Barnes’ career was supported by a network of entertainers who commissioned his work over the years. Notable collectors include the Los Angeles Lakers, The Kinsey Collection, and The Dean Collection (Alicia Keys and Swizz Beats). While Barnes’ work was not covered by the art world during his lifetime, a retrospective of his work in 2019 at the California African American Museum spurred a renewed interest in his work. In November 2021, Barnes’ 1978 piece “Ballroom Soul” sold for $550K at the Christie’s New York Contemporary Art Day Sale.

Photo credit: Los Angeles Times

A notable feature of Barnes’ work, in addition to the movement of the characters, is the fact that many of his subjects have their eyes closed. This references the fact that, in Barnes’ words “I tend to paint everyone, most everyone, with their eyes closed because I feel that we are blind to one another’s humanity. If we could see the gifts, strengths, and potential within every human being, then our eyes would be open.” For his part, Barnes opened many eyes to the beauty and power of art to uplift and transform.

Barnes passed away in 2009 at the age of 70 after a brief battle with myeloid leukemia.

An interview with Ernie Barnes:


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