Black History Month Profile of Ernest “Ernie” Barnes

When the local news station announced that Ernie Barnes’ art would be exhibited in the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, I dragged my mom out of bed forcing her to make the trek with me to view it in person. It was only a couple of other patrons that walked the dimly lit gallery with us but we were each enamored by his vividly colored and distinctly shaped Black characters that leapt from the canvases decades after they had been created. One of the items that stood out most to me was not one of his intricately lined paintings but his high school Letterman jacket that bore a large blue H. Unbeknownst to me, he was a fellow alumnus of the historically black Hillside High School in Durham, NC where he graduated from in 1956.

Copy of The Sugar Shack featured on Good Times. Courtesy of WUNC.

His name may not be widely known, but Mr. Barnes was an enigma and a literal renaissance man. During his lifetime he was a professional football player, an author, actor, and an highly-acclaimed painter. He is also the artist of one of the most recognizable pieces of art in television history. His popular piece is viewed by millions every time the opening credits of the 70’s hit sitcom “Good Times” airs on national syndication. The painting titled “The Sugar Shack,” fictionally is attributed J. J. Evans played by actor Jimmie Walker. It is also the cover art of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 Album “I Want You”. The original piece is owned by actor and comedian Eddie Murphy.

Ernie Barnes could be considered one of the greatest African American artist of all time. Born and raised near the historic Hayti section of Durham, NC, Barnes was as gifted in athletics as he was in art receiving about 25 athletic scholarships by the time he was set to graduate from high school. Because he was black, he was unable to further his educational or athletic efforts at the nearby Duke University or the University of North Carolina (UNC). Despite facing the daunting task of segregation, Barnes attended North Carolina College for Negroes or what is now known as North Carolina Central University, where he excelled in football as well as track. This is also where he credits his art professor for encouraging him to actively pursue art. His athletic prowess would lead to a professional football career where he played for several teams including the Baltimore Colts, Titans of New York, San Diego Chargers, the Denver Broncos followed by a short stint in the Canadian Football League.

Photo credit to theathletic.co.uk

Barnes art is known for capturing the beauty of black life, culture, and also relies heavily on sports themes. Some of the distinct attributes of his art is that he paints his characters with exaggerated or elongated bodies and often their eyes are closed. His work has been featured at many of the nation’s premier art galleries to much fan fare and often sells out. Aside from his art being commissioned by famous athletes and performers, his work has been featured in several television shows and movies including “Drumline” and “Boyz n the Hood.” Barnes passed away in 2009 from leukemia in Los Angeles, CA leaving behind a legacy that withstood some of the darkest times in American history. His work is still very much adored and consistently exhibited throughout the United States.

For more information about the late Ernie Barnes or to find out where you can view his work, you can visit erniebarnes.com

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