Durham native Ernie Barnes might have been from a neighborhood called the Bottoms, but he propelled his way to the top using sports and art. He was nurtured by a mother determined to expose him to a larger world and by a supportive segregated black community.
Barnes, who would have celebrated his 80th birthday July 15, will be remembered through his paintings. "The North Carolina Roots of Artist Ernie Barnes" exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of History opens June 29 and runs through March 3.
The show features 37 oil and acrylic paintings, including a reproduction of his most famous painting, “The Sugar Shack,” which many people saw for the first time on soul singer Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” album cover and during the closing credits of “Good Times,” the television sitcom that ran from 1974 to 1979.
In addition, 20 of Barnes' artifacts will be on display, including his painting palette, brushes and blocked letters he earned as a football player at Hillside High School in Durham.
“Although I never got a chance to meet Ernie in person, I was so honored to be able to work on this exhibit, because now I feel like I do know him,” said Katie Edwards, the museum's pop culture curator. “He was a remarkable human being who defied odds and became a renowned artist. This exhibit is an amazing opportunity for the state of North Carolina. It’s a chance for visitors to see a number of Ernie’s works that he painted throughout his life and see the impact that the state had on him and his career.”
Edwards says the works are divided into three sections: Durham roots, his NFL career and his artistic journey.
Ernest Barnes Jr. grew up near the Hayti District of Durham. His father, Ernest E. Barnes Sr., was a shipping clerk for Liggett Myers Tobacco Company, and his mother, Fannie Mae Barnes, was a housekeeper for prominent Durham attorney Frank L. Fuller.
“He was a brown-skin boy from a nice family but from the wrong side of the tracks,” says Durham native and childhood friend Irwin Holmes.
“Ernie and I went to school together,” Holmes said. “He was an athlete by nature. He was always big for his age. … Our senior year of high school we were both voted the top athletes in our class.”
Holmes, who graduated third in his Hillside High School class of 1956, enrolled at N.C. State as an electrical engineering major and joined the tennis team, becoming N.C. State’s first African-American athlete.
Meanwhile, Barnes was offered 26 athletic scholarships but decided to attend North Carolina College at Durham, which eventually became North Carolina Central University.
By the time Barnes attended college, he was on the rise.
“He was dating upward,” Holmes said.
Barnes married Andrea Burnett his freshman year. “She was from the right side of the tracks. Her father was a school principal.”
Barnes enrolled at North Carolina College in the fall of 1956 and officially left the spring of 1960. While the school has no record of his major, folks knew Barnes wanted to be an artist.
Andre D. Vann, coordinator of University Archives and instructor of Public History, said Barnes arrived on campus with an athletic scholarship and was a student-athlete under Herman Riddick, formerly the coach of Hillside High School.
“Like most students on this campus, he would have seen the campus blossom and bloom during this era,” Vann said.
At the time, art teacher and sculptor Ed Wilson taught at the college. Wilson would eventually become recognized as a significant artist for his works “Second Genesis” and “Jazz Musicians.”
“Barnes could often be found honing his art form. Sometimes it came at the expense of other things. He would rather spend time in the studio than the classroom,” Vann says.
N.C. Rep. H.M. “Mickey” Michaux, then a graduate student at North Carolina College, met Barnes during those years.
“Some of Barnes' most notable painting came from scenes of Durham," Michaux says. “He painted a rendering of the school’s band during a parade going through the U.S. 15-501 underpass. When I moved in my second house in Durham in 1967, he brought me a painting on cork for my fireplace. We came up with the name ‘O Happy Day’ because it depicted two black men singing and one man playing a guitar. It was celebratory. It was after the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts passed.”
Holmes adds that Barnes was a great marketer of his art and learned how to sell it.
“He was a skilled player in his execution, just like he was with his art,” Holmes says. “In his day, black art was not appreciated.”
Drafted from North Carolina College in 1959, Barnes played for the then-world champion Baltimore Colts. He was originally selected by the Washington Redskins, who renounced the pick minutes after discovering he was African-American.
Barnes, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound offensive guard, played for a succession of professional teams, including the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos.
While at the Colts training camp, Barnes was interviewed by N.P. Clark, a sportswriter for the Baltimore News-Post newspaper. Until then, Barnes was always known by his birth name, Ernest Barnes. But when Clark’s June 20, 1960, article appeared, it referred to him as “Ernie Barnes,” and the name stuck.
Barnes had a successful football career, but it was not a lucrative way to make a living. His last pro football salary was $13,500, said Luz Rodriguez, Barnes’ longtime assistant and co-trustee of the Ernie Barnes Estate. This was before football players starting making big money in the 1970s.
During the off-season with the Chargers, Barnes held a summer job as a program director at San Diego’s Southeast YMCA working with parolees from the California Youth Authority.
His other side hustle was always his art. Barnes was often fined by Denver Coach Jack Faulkner when he was caught sketching during team meetings. One of the sketches that he was fined for — a fine of $100 — sold years later for $1,000.
Barnes' signature style was elongated figures, which really captured the movement of athleticism on the field, the court and even sitting on the bench.
“Ed Wilson had told him, 'Don’t just paint what you see, paint what you feel,'” explains Edwards. “He captured emotions.”
And he did just that. He depicted a young girl jumping rope in “Rhymin’ Timin.’” He portrayed “Grandma’s Hands” in a commission for singer-songwriter Bill Withers, who became a good friend of Barnes'. He captured the joy of dunking the ball in the hoop in “High Aspirations.”
Barnes' most famous painting, “The Sugar Shack,” came about from sneaking into the Durham Armory in his early teens to see Clyde McPhatter and the Dominoes. This is what Barnes wrote about that night, according to papers provided by his estate.
“The experience that placed this image in my mind occurred when I was around 13 or 14. It was the first time I sneaked into a Rhythm and Blues concert and saw people moving on the dance floor with raw passion. My little Christian mind was shocked. What went through my mind was, 'Oh my God, I’m among sinners ... If my mother knew I was here ...' but I couldn’t move. Then after a while, the music had me moving. What I observed was the no inhibition, no self-consciousness or rigidity, just fluid movement while the music punctuated every bump and grind. I stood among the dancing with my mouth dropped and nobody noticed me.”
But folks were immediately drawn to that image. Rodriguez explains Gaye ran off with it.
“Ernie and Marvin Gaye played pickup basketball together in L.A.," Rodriguez said. "He showed him the painting and Marvin went ape. He borrowed it and then he doesn’t hear from him for weeks. Then Ernie gets a call from Motown asking to use it on the ‘I Want You’ album cover.”
Meanwhile, television producer Norman Lear asked Barnes to use “The Sugar Shack” on his sitcom “Good Times,” featuring the story of the hard-working Evans family trying to make ends meet in Chicago.
Motown also paid Barnes for the use of “The Sugar Shack.” But Gaye never returned the original painting, so Barnes painted a second one with a slightly different banner than the original, Rodriguez says. That one is featured in the exhibition. Gaye’s family sold the original to actor Eddie Murphy.
Many celebrities bought Barnes' work, including actor and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, comedian Flip Wilson and actor and political activist Charlton Heston. Barnes became the official artist of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Barnes was married three times and had five children. He died on April 27, 2009. His family and friends are expected to attend the exhibition. For many Durham residents, they knew Barnes would make it one way or the other.
“We all questioned whether he was going to be artist or an athlete,” Holmes says. “He was both.”
"The North Carolina Roots of Artist Ernie Barnes" exhibition opens at the North Carolina Museum of History, 5 E E.denton St., Raleigh, June 29 and runs through March 3. Admission is free.
Children’s book author Sandra Neil Wallace will be in town for the exhibit opening to sign her new children’s book, "Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery," on June 30 from 2:30-4 p.m.
For details, go to ncmuseumofhistory.org/ernie-barnes.