Ernest Eugene Barnes Jr. was born July 15, 1938, in Durham, during the Jim Crow era. Eighty years later we celebrate Ernie’s life and legacy in his home state. Throughout this year, the former NFL player who became a top artist, will be honored at various venues.
I met Ernie in Los Angeles, where he was a co-producer of the “Super Comedy Bowl.” Upon discovering that I was from Hillsborough, N.C., he realized we would never have known each other in the segregated South.
Ernie was older, and the closest I ever got to his environment was when I “borrowed” mama’s car and would sneak over to the Durham Armory on “hop” night. That’s where all the local black kids danced. My high school girlfriends and I used to peer through windows and watch gyrating figures pulsate to music.
Unbeknownst to me, Ernie may have been sitting in a dark corner, pen in hand, sketching figures that eventually became inspiration for Marvin Gaye’s famous “The Sugar Shack” album. The TV show “Good Times” had a young character, J.J. Walker, who was a painter. The paintings shown were in reality Ernie’s. The series showcased “The Sugar Shack” at the episode’s end and exposed this piece of artwork to a national audience.
Ernie’s mother, Fanny Barnes, was a domestic who worked for a prominent Durham lawyer, Frank Fuller. Often Ernie would accompany her, and Mr. Fuller invited him to read his vast library collection that included examples of paintings by Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Van Gogh.
Inspired, this young child would take a stick and draw figures in the soil of his Durham neighborhood. Many of his later paintings would be reflective of his youth.
Shy and bullied as a child, Ernie received encouragement from his teachers. By his senior year at Hillside High School, he had even become a state athletic champion excelling in football and track. With 26 scholarship offers, he chose what is now N.C. Central University. It was there, as an art major, that his teacher, Ed Wilson, encouraged him to understand what his body felt like in sports: the movements, the elongation and the attitude. This expression is visible in all of Ernie’s work, and every painting has many layers of a story to tell.
At 21 and the beginning of the civil rights movement, Ernie was drafted into the National Football League by the Baltimore Colts. Five years a lineman, he also played with the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos, witnessing the brutality, violence and dehumanization of professional football. Often angry, he demonstrated this on canvas.
Ernie, who died in 2009, was not only a participant, but an observer of human behavior. In all his work, his figures are painted with eyes closed.
“It represents our blindness to another’s humanity," he said. "We don’t see into the depths of our interconnection; the gifts, the strength and potential within other human beings. Racism has taught many of us ‘what’ to think about each other, but not ‘how’ to think about one another.”
His paintings reveal a deep dedication to racial and ethnic harmony. In his abundant body of work, he shares much of his personal experiences, be it sports, music, ladies, dance, education, the church, his Jewish neighborhood in LA or his beginnings here in the South. I was blessed to have called him one of my best, “forever” friends. He called me his “Ace Boon Coon,” which I understood to be a term of endearment.
Years ago in West Hollywood, Ernie gave me a key to his studio, an easel, spare acrylics, so this former art major could paint. Often, I walked around in awe of his work in progress. His family, especially wife Bernie, and I spent many good times together, often at one of the many events where his paintings were being unveiled or he was given another award. The event always included something with food and drink.
Ernie’s youthful favorite dish was fried butterfish on Fanny’s biscuit with molasses dripping all over the concoction. But I offered him the finer nuances of Lexington Style BBQ, my mom’s Brunswick stew, butter beans, tomatoes from my garden, pecan pie. And, when he came to Durham, one of the first stops he had to make was at Foster’s Restaurant where Sara’s key lime pie and bread pudding always won the top prize.
We welcome you to the homecoming for Ernie Barnes; a year long 80th birthday celebration. After a private reception Thursday, June 28, the exhibition “The North Carolina Roots of Artist Ernie Barnes” opens to public Friday, June 29, through March 3, 2019, at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh. At 3 pm. Sunday, July 15, there will be an Ernie Barnes 80th Birthday Hometown Celebration at B.N. Duke Auditorium on the NCCU campus.
Zacki Murphy of Zacki’s Culinary Creations is a personal chef and culinary instructor. Reach her at www. zackisculinarycreations.com