|Ernest Eugene Barnes, Jr., was born on July 15, 1938, in Durham, North Carolina. His father was a shipping clerk for a tobacco company and his mother was a servant for an attorney, Frank Fuller, Jr. Fuller introduced Barnes to art by allowing him to look through his art books and by telling him about museums, painters, and schools of art. |
When Barnes began school, he knew the works of many master artists, such as Rubens and Michelangelo. Barnes eventually realized that the best way in that era to gain respect as an African
|American was to become an athlete. The first year he tried out for the football team he quit after two practice sessions because he was out of shape and unmotivated. The next year he tried to avoid football by convincing his mother not to allow him to play, but the coach visited his mother and talked her into letting him play. Another teacher, upon finding him hiding and drawing, took interest in his artwork and helped him get into shape for football. By his senior year Barnes was captain of the football team and state champion in the shotput. These accomplishments resulted in a football scholarship to North Carolina College, where he continued his art studies. |
Upon graduation, Barnes signed a pro football contract with the Baltimore Colts, and painted his first major work, “The Bench.” He carried the piece with him to training camp, where he was pleased with the reactions of the coaches. When visiting New York, he found a portfolio of Charles White reproductions, which was the first time work by a black artist had made a lasting impression on him. While playing for the San Diego Chargers, the team's publicity director commissioned Barnes to sketch portraits of his teammates for the game programs. The success of this project resulted in an assignment to write and illustrate an article about pro football violence.
Barnes' first exhibition was at a team party for the Denver Broncos. The only piece he had was “The Bench,” so he quickly created ten abstract paintings for the exhibition. After selling six of the abstract works, he was asked for a price on “The Bench.” Barnes quoted a price of $25,000, a figure he considered to be ridiculously high, as he did not want to sell the piece. The gentleman handed him a check, at which point Barnes attempted to back out of the deal. The argument caught the eye of a Sports Illustrated reporter, resulting in an article about Barnes featuring “The Bench.”
After an injury forced an end to his playing career, Barnes tried to earn a living as an artist, but had difficulty making ends meet. When selling books at a used bookstore, he noticed a letter from Van Goghto his brother, in which he saw his own feelings in Van Gogh's words. This reinvigorated his determination to succeed. Barnes called Barron Hilton and walked the six miles to the appointment. Hilton was impressed and urged Barnes to write a proposal to the American Football League to make him the official artist of the AFL, as well as commissioning a new work. This led to an invitation from Sonny Werblin, the owner of the New York Jets, to bring his work to New York. Werblin had three art critics review Barnes' work, after which Werblin put Barnes under contract for thirty paintings, starting Barnes' long, successful art career.
His autobiography “From Pads to Palette” chronicles his transition from athlete to artist.Barnes’ ability to capture the powerful energy and movement of sports has earned him “America’s Best Painter of Sports” by the American Sports Art Museum. In 1984, he was appointed official sports artist for the XXIII Olympiad in Los Angeles. His sports commissions include “The Dream Unfolds,” for the NBA to commemorate their 50th anniversary; “Fastbreak” for Los Angeles Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss; and paintings for the owners of the Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Oakland Raiders and Boston Patriots football teams.
For over 40 years, his neo-mannerism style of art has been admired and collected internationally. His national traveling “Beauty of the Ghetto” exhibition in the 1970s featured some of his timeless works as “Storyteller,” “High Aspirations” and “The Graduate.” His famous 1971 “Sugar Shack” dance scene appeared on the “Good Times” television show and on the Marvin Gaye album “I Want You.” This image has been widely imitated and Barnes’ expressive style has influenced countless aspiring artists.
Barnes’ art has been used as an educational tool to empower youth. The power, grace, intensity and fluidity of his work – combined with his celebrated variation of genre and sports themes – has given him an unequaled place in the history of modern art, despite the domination of abstract art throughout his career.