The American Dream: Ernie Barnes

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By the time Ernest "Ernie" Barnes, Jr. (1938-2009) passed away this past April, he had truly achieved the American dream. He went from being a "fat" and "introverted" child who wasn't allowed into art museums because he was black to a renowned artist with exhibitions in prestigious galleries. Along the way, he was also an accomplished athlete.

Some things you might not know about Ernie Barnes"¦

1. He was paid a football salary to spend 6 months painting.

After six seasons of professional football (including a stint in Canada), Ernie Barnes had to retire from the game at the age of 26 due to an injury. The next year, the owner of the New York Jets, Sonny Werblin, contracted Barnes "to just paint" for six months at $14,500, about $1,000 more than Barnes' football salary the previous year. The contract culminated with Barnes' first solo exhibition, held at the prestigious Manhattan gallery founded by John Singer Sargent, the Grand Central Art Galleries, at which all 30 of Barnes' paintings sold.

2. Singers loved his artwork for their album covers.

Barnes' most famous painting, "The Sugar Shack," was used by Marvin Gaye for his album I Want You. Other cover artwork includes "Late Night DJ" for Curtis Mayfield's Something to Believe In, an untitled painting for Donald Byrd's Donald Byrd and 125th Street, NYC, "Head Over Heels" for The Crusaders' The Good and Bad Times, and "In Rapture" for B.B. King's Making Love is Good for You.

3. Even as a pro athlete, he was devoted to his art.

"Big Rembrandt," as his teammates called him, often spent team meetings, review sessions, and his time on the bench drawing, even though he was fined $50 each time his coach caught him. Playing for the San Diego Chargers, Barnes sketched the portraits of his teammates that appeared in the game programs. Those portraits spiraled into an appearance on Regis Philbin's first talk show and an assignment to write and illustrate an article for a magazine. With the Denver Broncos, Barnes was asked to show his work at a team party. Six of the 11 works he displayed sold, and Barnes' reluctance to sell his favorite painting, "The Bench," resulted in a Sports Illustrated article, his first real national exposure as an artist.

4. Vincent Van Gogh inspired him to call Barron Hilton from a pay phone.

At one point, Barnes was so strapped for cash he was selling his possessions. Selling his books one day, Barnes saw an article about Van Gogh that featured a letter to the artist's brother about his hardships. The letter gave Barnes "reaffirmation" and courage, and he marched home to pick out his best drawings, write up a proposal, and phone Hilton for a meeting. Lacking money for gas, Barnes walked 6 miles to Hilton's office, where the hotelier commissioned a painting for $1,000 (of which Barnes received a $500 advance).

5. He's the only sport artist to be named Sport Artist of the Year twice.

In 1984, Barnes was named the first Sport Artist of the Year by the American Sports Art Museum and Archives. Twenty years later, in 2004, he received the award again. He has received numerous other accolades, including being named America's Best Painter of Sports, Official Artist of the American Football League, and Official Artist of the 1984 Summer Olympics.

6. He believed "we are blind to each other's humanity."

Almost all of the people in Barnes' paintings are depicted with their faces obscured or their eyes closed. Barnes stated, "I won't paint people with their eyes open," explaining "We don't see each other, we are blind to each other's humanity."

Shown above is Barnes' "Olympic Finish." (A larger version is not available.)

Fans should check out the official Ernie Barnes web site; From Pads to Palette, his autobiography; his TOPPS card; his brief NY Jets bio (Barnes played for the Jets when they were still the Titans); Ebony's 1973 article about Barnes' artwork; and the Americans in Focus vignette on Barnes.

"Feel Art Again" appears three times a week. Looking for a particular artist? Visit our archive for a complete listing of all 250+ artists that have been featured. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists. Or you can head to our Facebook page, where you can do everything in one place.

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October 17, 2009 - 11:45am
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