Ernie Barnes this is My Art
ABOUT THE ARTIST- Americans became familiar with the art of Ernie Barnes via the television show “Good Times,” and his appointment as the Official Artist of the XXIII Olympiad at Los Angeles. But his work gained critical acclaim and collector strength through Manhattan’s prestigious Grand Central Art Galleries. Today, he continues to be one of the most collected artists in America. Ernie Barnes and his wife, Bernie, live in a quiet section of greater Los Angeles where he works in his home studio.
Ernest Eugene Barnes Jr. was born July 15, 1938, in a poor section (“the bottom”) of Durham, North Carolina. His father, Ernest Barnes Sr., worked as a shipping clerk at Liggett Myers Tobacco Company and his mother, Fannie Mae Geer, was employed as a domestic for Frank Fuller Jr., a wealthy Southern attorney who would guide Barnes into the world of art.
On days when Fannie Mae allowed her son to accompany her to work, Fuller would talk to young Ernest “about art and life. He would call me into his study and allow me to look through his art books. I enjoyed this room of polished, mahogany walls with leather chairs, shelves of leather-bound books and the sound of classical music. He would tell me about the various schools of art, his favorite painters, the museums he visited and other things my mind couldn’t quite comprehend at the age of seven,” the artist recalls. So it was particularly surprising when Fuller, as a member of the local school board, voted against school desegregation. “He told my mother he didn’t think ‘the Whites are ready.'”
By the time Barnes entered the first grade, he was familiar with the works of such masters as Toulouse-Lautrec, Delacroix, Rubens, and Michelangelo. By the time he entered junior high, he could appreciate, as well as decode, many of the cherished masterpieces within the walls of museums — although it would be a half dozen more years before he was allowed entrance because of his race.
Unusual for a lower-middle class child growing up in the segregated South of the 1940s, Barnes’ mother believed in education and exposure to the arts. “She tried to get me to do all the things that would make me a culturally enriched person. She pushed me in the direction of art and music. I took lessons in tap dancing, saxophone, trombone, violin and piano,” he says, noting with a laugh that he mastered none of them. Early on, however, he showed a talent for art. “I was never in class. I was always off somewhere decorating stuff.”
Overweight and extremely introverted, Barnes was a target for ridicule from the time he started the first grade through his junior year in high school, continually seeking refuge in his sketchbooks.
“They hated me,” he says of his classmates. “My mother escorted me to school ten times before I could accept the fact that I had to stay there. I couldn’t conform easily to the athletic ideal and was made to feel inadequate. I wasn’t able to fight, to run fast, nor was I picked for rough games. I was introverted and shy. If there was a day that I did not come home in tears because of a fight, it could be attributed to sickness, the weekend, or it was rained out. I was beaten so severely, my mother requested that I be allowed to leave school fifteen minutes before the other kids, and permission was granted.
“When I was at home and drawing, I was happy. My senses addressed themselves naturally to the discovery of what I could make happen on paper. It was so easy. From the shrouded mists of my sensitivity, I made friends with lines, allowing them to flow into things belonging to my immediate environment; the trees, clouds, birds and people. In school, nobody laughed and made fun of me when I was drawing. They just watched in silent awe.”
At the age of 13 came the rude awakening that the only way of getting a girlfriend was by exerting his prowess through sports. Even then, he says, “the athlete was respected as the finest embodiment of one’s African heritage. There were those convinced that the only way to heaven was with a football or basketball. Most definitely a bat. On any given day, the number one question on the block was, ‘Hey, man. What did the Mays do today?’ or ‘Did you see the way the brother was running?’ Any Black male worth giving the time of day owed it to his race to at least make an attempt to hit ‘The Gipper’ as soon as he touched the ball.”
Unfortunately, the sensitive young man could not avoid the issue forever. Nature had played a cruel trick; Barnes had grown too tall to overlook. He finally reported to the coach’s office, got weighed, assigned a locker, and outfitted with pads, helmet and practice gear. Dismally out of shape and lacking the killer instinct necessary to survive serious injuries on the field, he quit after two practice sessions.
The next year, when the coaches began putting together the varsity team, Barnes talked his mother into saying that she didn’t want him to play. The ploy failed. “When I came home from school one day, I was shocked to find Coach Higgins sitting at the dinner table smiling and eating chicken,” Barnes laughs. “With him was the captain of the football team and he was eating chicken, too. From the beautiful smiles fixed on their greasy faces, it was apparent that whatever they had discussed, they were all in agreement. I just waited to hear their decision. After eating, Coach wiped his mouth and knelt in prayer with the captain and Mama. Coach then made a contribution to Mama’s missionary fund and, the very next day, I was number 73.”
At the same time, Barnes began hiding out in less-traveled parts of the school building, where he worked happily on his drawings between classes. One day, the masonry shop teacher happened by and demanded to know: “What the hell are you doing here, boy? Students aren’t allowed in this area. Why aren’t you outside?” Terrified, Barnes just stared at him. The teacher, Mr. Tucker, reached for his sketch pad. “Did you do these drawings?” “Yes, sir, I draw here in this area because it’s quiet.” Smiling, Tucker continued looking through the drawings, then said, “Come with me.” Instead of being led off to the Dean’s office for a reprimand, Barnes was taken to the masonry shop where Tucker quizzed him about such things as his grades and what he wanted to do in life. Tucker also told him about how he had once been intimidated by everything around him until bodybuilding improved both his strength and outlook on life. He then drove the teenager home, talked Ernest Sr. and Fannie Mae into buying their son a set of weights, and became his personal fitness trainer — laying out a program that Barnes followed religiously.
That one encounter would change Barnes’ life forever. During his senior year in high school, he became the captain of the school’s varsity football team, state champion in the shot-put, and was graduated from Hillside High with 26 scholarship offers from colleges and universities — giving him a college education he would not otherwise be able to afford.
Even so, Barnes received no offers from Duke University, which was only three miles from his home, or the University of North Carolina, only 13 miles away. It would be several years before the country adopted anti-discrimination laws, so his only options were all-Black campuses — of which he chose nearby North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University), located a block from his high school, which allowed him to live at home.
The four years that Barnes spent at North Carolina College represented a watershed period in his development as an artist. While fulfilling the obligations of his athletic scholarship, he majored in art under the tutelage of two visionaries: Ed Wilson, the chairman of the art department who had apprenticed under the noted sculptor William Zorack, and William B. Fletcher, the co-chairman.
Though frustrated with the fact that their students all hailed from poor, ill-equipped high schools, most of them with no experience beyond cutting construction paper and pasting it together, Wilson and Fletcher “had the wisdom to combine all of their knowledge in classes which taught the fundamentals of drawing and painting, anatomy, structure, drapery, perspective, light and shade, sculpture, basic design, study of the figure and art history,” Barnes says. “The entire program was designed to lead gracefully into an individual style. They were on a constant search for individuality. What a place! I practically lived in the art building, often cutting classes to absorb as much knowledge as possible.”
From Wilson in particular, Barnes learned: “If you’re going to be an artist, you’ve got to work from your experiences, whatever they might be. When you’re on the field, check out what’s going on around you in that muggy conflict. Feel the solidity of those bumps; pay attention to what you’re going through, then tell me about it. When you’re walking around, what do you see? What moves you? I want to know your opinion about it.”
It helped that Wilson had played football at the University of Iowa. “Through him,” Barnes relates, “I came to better understand the art process and the athletic process as being parts of one entity. I knew that I did not stop being an artist when I was on the football field.”
When the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh finally opened its doors in 1956, giving Barnes his first chance ever to view real works of art — including pieces by Rubens, Caravaggio and Van Gogh — it was a childhood dream come true.
“As soon as I was inside, I felt linked, placed in a school, on a course I had signed up for long ago and never learned where it was being held. I felt the power of becoming – like the dream was closer within my grasp. As we moved through the museum, viewing and listening to the docent explain each work, I moved closer to ask, ‘Where are the paintings by Negro artists?’ She was so taken aback by my question that she stopped and stared at me. Then in a rather apologetic tone, she said, ‘I’m afraid your people don’t express themselves this way.’
After the field trip, Ed Wilson said to Barnes and the others: “Now you know what you’re up against.” As if to counter the damage that had been done, he then showed the class examples of paintings by Negro artists, including Henry O. Tanner, Edmonia Lewis, Duncanson, Archibald Motley, Hale Woodruff, Sargent Johnson and Palmer Hayden.
“These were all paintings by Negroes who were considered well-intended, but lacking in quality because they didn’t meet European standards, especially if the art reflected Negro roots. At that time, not one Negro was known to have made a living as an artist. Even my father opposed my becoming an artist. The first time I told him of my career intentions, he said, ‘You gonna be what? Who in the hell is gonna feed you while you’re painting?'” Barnes recalls.
Ironically, two decades after that visit to the North Carolina Museum of Art, the institution would host two major solo exhibitions by Ernie Barnes – one in 1978, hosted by Governor James Hunt, and his groundbreaking “The Beauty of the Ghetto” in 1979, hosted by H. M. Michaux.
While still at NCC, Barnes sold his first painting, called “Slow Dance,” for $90 to Sam Jones, who had just completed his first rookie season with the Boston Celtics and happened to see it upon visiting the Fine Arts building. (The painting was later lost in a fire.)
During Barnes’ senior year at NCC, letters from professional teams began arriving practically every week. Even so, he had barely given any thought to turning pro, especially since Blacks were still a novelty among their ranks. Instead, he had set his sights on a career as an artist.
But the lure of what was then a significant amount of money for a 21-year-old prevailed. In 1959, as an art major fresh out of college, Barnes became a 263-pound 10th round draft choice for then-World Champion Baltimore Colts.
He experienced his first stay in a hotel when the Colts invited him and his college coach to visit Baltimore to see a championship game against the Giants. While there, Barnes also signed a contract that would pay him $6500 a year, with a $500 bonus.
Inspired by what he saw, Barnes returned home to paint his first major work, “The Bench.” He remembers fondly that “it was the only painting Ed Wilson ever looked at and approved upon sight, and one with which I never intended to part.”
Entering the world of professional football exposed Barnes for the first time to the growing racial tensions sweeping across mainstream America, requiring him to suddenly adjust to a predominantly White culture.
“Protest marches were springing up everywhere. The event that started it all occurred on February 1, 1960, when four courageous Black students from North Carolina A&T took seats at the Greensboro Woolworth store’s Whites-only lunch counter, which started the ‘sit-ins.’ The next city was Durham and on every Black college campus there were protest rallies. Up to that point, everything I had done in life had been with and around Black people,” he notes.
Upon arriving for training camp with the rest of the rookies at Westminster College in Maryland, Barnes carried his suitcase in one hand and his painting, “The Bench,” under the other arm. After exchanging greetings, the coaches leaned over to look at the piece. “To my surprise,” Barnes recalls, “I didn’t get a negative reaction. They liked it and were amazed I had created it. Coach [Herman] Ball began telling me a story about how he, as a child, had wanted to be an artist.” Then a sportswriter happened past and requested an interview. When the story came out, Ernest Barnes had a new moniker and would forever after be known as Ernie Barnes.
Over the next five years, Barnes played for the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos. While based in New York, he spent his days off from football visiting galleries — many of them filled with abstract art, then the rage of the times. “One after another, there were canvases which reminded me of splotches of blood and grass stains on game uniforms. I wondered if the authors of those canvases knew how to draw. If so, why were they refusing to meet life head on and accept its vital statistics.” He also couldn’t understand why the “rhythms and passions of sports were not reflected more.”
On one of these outings, he stopped into a Harlem bookstore, where he came across a portfolio of reproductions of Charles White drawings. The discovery left him in awe. “It was the first time in my life that I had seen images reflecting Black lifestyle and it made a profound impression on me. One that made me commit to one day producing the type of art that would awaken serious reflections about human life,” he says.
While playing for the Chargers, the team’s publicity director, Bob Burdick, commissioned Barnes to sketch portraits of his teammates for the game programs. As a result, Barnes was asked to appear on Regis Philbin’s first talk show, a late night television program on San Diego that had just debuted. Soon after, he got an assignment to write and illustrate an article about the violence inherent in pro football for San Diego Magazine.
As he progressed in his football career, Barnes began sketching to ward off boredom. “Like sitting in a dark room watching game films over and over again, while listening as a teammate was tongue-lashed for his mistakes. It could be tense in there. I was caught sketching at one of these meetings. Not openly sketching. I was sitting in the glow of the light from the projector, so I raised the cover of my playbook and began drawing. Other than sketching an investigation of forms, it liberated me from the gloom in the room. I was often lost through this activity and that’s where I was when (Denver head coach) Jack Faulkner silently moved behind me. He said, ‘Barnes, goddammit! You’re fined fifty dollars!’ And I responded, ‘Coach, I was, uh…just sketching out my assignment!’ He didn’t care. He snapped back, ‘When this becomes an art class, you can sit there and sketch. Until then, it’s fifty dollars every time I catch you. Maybe you can sell it to pay the fine.’
Barnes did, “but the situation greatly affected my thinking about football. I didn’t have any other way of testing another employment. I was driven to be good at football and I didn’t know how to stop proving I was,” he says.
Barnes’ first-ever exhibition resulted from an invitation from the Bronco Backers Club to show his work at a party they sponsored for the team at the Denver Country Club. The problem was he didn’t have any paintings other than “The Bench.” The team’s publicity representative encouraged him to at least show his sketches, but Barnes declined. So he purchased sheets of masonite and spent the evening smearing acrylic paint. By the night of the dinner, he had ten abstract paintings, framed, priced and hanging. To his amazement, six sold and he was offered $25,000 for “The Bench.” “I just threw the price out to the gentleman as a way of reinforcement that I did not want to sell it. But the guy responded by writing a check and handing it to me. At first I thought he was just drunk. But he was serious, and the more I insisted it was not for sale, the more he wanted to buy it.” In the small crowd that gathered around them was a reporter from Sports Illustrated. A week later, a story ran with a photo of “The Bench,” giving Barnes his first national exposure.
During a Broncos game against the Chiefs in Kansas City, Barnes was chasing down an opponent on a punt return, caught him in front of the Chief’s bench and ended up falling out of bounds. Getting up, he saw a little old man sketching behind their bench. Barnes thought he looked familiar, but couldn’t quite place the face. “I looked at him and he looked up from his sketch pad at me. It was after the game and in the locker room when I realized that little old man was Thomas Hart Benton” – notably, one of America’s favorite regionalist painters.
While Barnes was still playing for the Broncos, the Denver Post ran a four-page article with photos of his paintings. One of those pictured was of two clowns, a piece that had been commissioned by his coach’s wife. “The reaction to those clowns was astounding. I received letters from people all over Denver for clowns painted on cork panel. I sold them for $100 each, and got about three sales per week, which was more than my game check. I knew then I was in the wrong business,” he says with a laugh.
Barnes began keeping a small pad of paper and a two-inch stubbed pencil inside the sock of his left leg. During timeouts or whenever he was called out of a game, he would note potential subject matter. “More and more I was preoccupied with the creative drive and the increasing necessity to portray my view of football. After every game, at my core was this need to give life to what I saw,” he says. “And despite how swollen and painful my hands were, I started drawing and searching for lines that effectively interpreted the movement I was seeking. Maybe it was because of the soreness or simply my increasing awareness, but I began distorting and elongating the proportions, trying to relate what it felt like within the context of a certain movement.”
By the end of his fifth season in the sport, Barnes had an instinct his playing days would soon be over. “The last game of a season can be unusually brutal,” he explains. “Each player is giving his gut-ripping best in hope of a renewed option and a raise for the next season.” What occurred that afternoon “would have made the battle of Waterloo look like a worm fight,” he confides. In a matter of seconds, both teams converged in the center of the field, engaged in a helmet-beating, fist-throwing brawl, while the stadium roared with obscenities and encouragement. Barnes deliberately didn’t enter the melee, opting instead to stand on the sidelines, where he formed what he calls “an imaginative reconstruction of the scene taking place in the Coliseum of ancient Rome. The crowd giving the thumbs down sign. The press box like the Imperial Box where Emperor Titus viewed the lavish games. Then to add a more dramatic flavor to the afternoon, the sun appeared from behind the clouds and illuminated the helmets of the finally-subsiding athletes.”
After getting back to the locker room, Barnes began visualizing a painting that would summarize modern day professional football. He even had the title of the piece already selected: “Sunday’s Gladiators.” As he exited, he asked the head coach for a release, said goodbye to his teammates, and headed to San Diego.
In need of money, Barnes approached an acquaintance who had become wealthy building mortuaries — hoping he would serve as the patron while Barnes launched an art career. Instead, the man told him, “This idea about being an artist sounds to me like you’re chasing a will-o’-the-wisp idea. You can’t make a living as an artist. You’re a Negro. Even the best White artists have trouble. What you need is a good job. Something you can depend on.” He told Barnes to call one of his managers, who put him to work building crypts and busting cement with a jackhammer.
Depressed, Barnes sneaked away from the construction site to sketch every chance he could get. “Sometimes I’d be gone for as much as half an hour. Finally the impulse to paint grew too strong. I bought canvas, stretched it and applied pigment to the canvas. I worked at it night and day. I even called in sick to paint.”
When alimony to a former wife and child support payments took their toll, Barnes went back to playing ball, this time for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Canada. During the fourth quarter of the last exhibition game, he dropped back in pass protection and felt a sharp pain in his right foot. The team trainer later told him that the X-rays showed a fracture – marking the end to Barnes’ professional career at the age of 26.
On his way back across country, Barnes was down to his last $150 by the time he reached Denver. Even so, he declined a job teaching art and coaching football in a private school, knowing he could never be happy with all of the obligations that come with joining a faculty. With a small loan from a friend, he and his pregnant second wife then took off for San Diego, where Don Freeman, the widely-beloved San Diego Union newspaper reporter, loaned him another $100 to get them up to Los Angeles.
Barnes used a portion of the money to buy a large sketch pad, pencil and paints. The rest went for a run-down motel room in Hollywood, where he began sketching furiously with a different kind of game plan in mind. As the money dwindled, he pawned two prized patches and a ring, giving them enough money for daily balanced meals for Janet, while he subsisted on chocolate snaps and Coca Cola.
With their cash almost gone, Barnes visited a used book store one day to hawk some of his own books. On his way out, he noticed an article on Van Gogh, featuring a letter from the famed painter to his brother at the height of his despair. “I read the letter over and then read it again,” he relates. “The shock of recognition I felt was cataclysmic. Here it all was. The battle, the uncertainty, the imminent failure of resolution and, most importantly, the reaffirmation I so needed at this crossroad in my life. Suddenly, I felt better. I felt more certain and courageous. Like one of those flattened cartoon characters who miraculously survive the steamroller and are restored to three-dimensional life.”
Barnes returned to his motel room, picked out seven of his best drawings, typed up a proposal that would hopefully lead to income and recognition, and called hotelier Barron Hilton on the pay phone in the courtyard. With no money to spare for gas, he walked the six miles to the Hilton Hotel Corporation in Beverly Hills.
Hilton was so impressed with Barnes’ work and suggestion that he be made the Official Artist for the American Football League that he urged the young painter to write a proposal and deliver it to the AFL’s team owners, who would be meeting in Houston two weeks later. He also commissioned a painting of Lance Alworth catching a pass for $1000, of which he gave Barnes $500 on the spot.
That meeting would mark a major turning point in Barnes’ career. Sonny Werblin, the owner of the New York Jets, invited him to bring his paintings to New York — and gave him $1000 to pay his expenses.
Accepting the invitation, Barnes arrived with nine of his art pieces several weeks later. He ultimately met Werblin at the Incurrable Collectors Gallery on West 57th Street. Introductions were then made to three formally-attired gentlemen, after which Barnes was asked to step outside. While waiting for Werblin on the street, Barnes encountered another man, whom he would later learn was a reporter for the Newspaper Enterprise Association. “I asked him who the three strange men were. He said, ‘They are art critics who Sonny is having evaluate your paintings.’ I think I went into sudden shock.'”
Twenty minutes later, the three critics finally emerged and disappeared. Then came Werblin, who took the reporter aside for a brief conversation. Smiling, he finally turned his attention to Barnes. “No more football for you, young man. Those three men I brought with me are art critics. You know what they said about you? They said that you are the most expressive painter of sports since George Bellows. You’re an artist.”
It would turn out to be a quintessential moment in Barnes’ career. As he fondly recalls, “Sonny held onto my arm as we walked across 57th Street to his office. ‘How much did you make last season?’ he asked me. When I told him $13,500, he thought about it for a moment and we stopped walking. Finally, he looked at me and said, ‘I want you to paint. That’s all I want you to do. Develop your skills. How many paintings can you do in, let’s say, six or seven months?’ I really had no idea, so I responded twenty-five to thirty. We started to walk again. ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do,’ he said. ‘I’m going to put you under contract to paint thirty paintings. I’ll pay you $14,500 over six months. At the end of six months, we’ll look at what you’ve done and I’ll give you an exhibition here in New York. How would you like that?'” Later, in the office of Werblin’s attorney, Barnes signed a contract that included a rental car, if needed, and a bonus of $2000.
Soon after returning to Los Angeles, Barnes would learn that Werblin had scheduled his first solo exhibition at one of Manhattan’s most prestigious venues, the Grand Central Art Galleries – founded by the legendary John Singer Sargent. Moreover, it would place Barnes in the company of the Grand Central’s legendary stable of artists, including George Bellows, Robert Henri, John Sloan, and Henry O. Tanner, all of whom had been showcased by the Grand Central in the past.
Just as he was finishing up his final painting for the show, Barnes got a call from his mother, saying that his father had suffered a stroke. He packed up a U-Haul with the paintings and drove straight through to North Carolina. Ernest Barnes, Sr., passed away a few days later, on October 25, 1966.
Following the funeral, Barnes then headed to New York for the show’s opening. Upon arriving, he was greeted by Edwin S. Barrie, Grand Central Art Galleries’ distinguished director. Barrie enthused to him how fortunate he was in having Sonny Werblin as his patron. And he added, “That’s the way it should be. Once a man rises to a certain state of wealth, it’s expected of him to make a contribution to the culture of his country. You could turn out to be his best.”
Indeed, Ernie Barnes’ first professional exhibition was a sell-out, marking the beginning of a long relationship with the Grand Central Art Galleries, along with the McKenzie and Heritage Galleries in Los Angeles.