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Hundreds flock to museum to remember artist Ernie Barnes

EXPOSITION PARK — Artist Ernie Barnes is best remembered as a titan in the art world as well as a formidable foe on the football field, but art would win out as his lifelong passion. 

With the deft strokes of his brush, Barnes became internationally known for painting the brutal beauty of professional sports as well as poignantly capturing the joy and vibrancy of African-American life.

Barnes, who died of leukemia in 2009 at the age of 70, was admired for his paintings that depicted African Americans dancing with sheer abandon in a juke joint, a parishioner struck by the Holy Ghost during a lively church service, runners dashing to the finish line at a track meet, a college drum major proudly strutting in all of his glory and a couple surreptitiously trading kisses on a back porch.

On July 21, the California African American museum celebrated the life and legacy of Barnes’ stellar career with a talk titled “Ernie Barnes, A Retrospective.”

The talkcoincided with an art exhibit of Barnes’ oil and acrylic paintings, which are on display at CAAM until Sept. 8.

Nearly 400 audience members were in attendance at the tribute which featured a panel of Barnes’ closest friends and collectors, including Luz Rodriguez, Barnes’ longtime assistant; Hardy Nickerson, a former NFL player and coach; and Paul Von Blum, senior lecturer in African American Studies and Communication Studies at UCLA. 

The event was moderated by Bridget R. Cooks, associate professor of African American Studies and Art History at the University of California. 

Compton native Nickerson said he met Barnes in 1993 and commissioned him to draw a painting of Friendly Friendship Baptist Church that Nickerson had attended as a youth. The painting shows a jubilant congregation dancing and praising God.

“You can feel the joy and passion coming out of the picture,” said Nickerson, who added that the church still exists.

Barnes moved to Los Angeles’ Fairfax district in 1971 where he developed a close association with the Jewish community. “All people are really the same,” he said about living among his Jewish neighbors. 

“I wrote extensively about Ernie’s artwork and he and I were good friends,” said Von Blum a second-generation Holocaust survivor. “We talked about art, politics and civil rights. I took his work to UCLA and showed his work all over the world.” 

Born in the segregated South in Durham, North Carolina on July 15, 1938, Barnes was a shy, overweight child who was relentlessly bullied by his classmates.

A natural artist, he found solace in his drawings, and in junior high, one of his teachers took a special interest in himand started Barnes on a weightlifting program. His bulk and athletic prowess earned him a full scholarship at the historically black North Carolina College at Durham, where he majored in art. 

In 1956, the 18-year-old college freshman went on a field trip to the recently desegregated North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. When he asked the white guide where the paintings by Negroes were, he was told, “Your people don’t express themselves that way.”

Instead of accepting the guide’s words, Barnes spent the rest of his life proving that the guide’s perception was wrong.  Twenty-three years later, the museum held a solo exhibit of Barnes’ work that was attended by North Carolina’s governor. 

Barnes’ professional football career in the NFL included stints with the New York Titans, the Baltimore Colts, the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos.  

“One day on the playing field I looked up and the sun was breaking through the clouds, hitting the muddied areas on the uniforms, and I said, ‘That’s beautiful!’” Barnes recalled. “I knew then that it was all over being a player. I was more interested in art. So I traded my cleats for canvas, my bruises for brushes, and put all the violence and power I’d felt on the field into my paintings.”

Barnes was commissioned by various sports teams to capture vivid scenes on the football field as well as in the boxing ring and on the basketball court. Barnes’ style of painting was so popular that he was commissioned to be the official sports artist for the 1984 Olympics. 

Many celebrities bought Barnes’ work, including Kanye West, who commissioned Barnes to create a painting to depict his life-changing experience following his near-fatal car crash; actor and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, Flip Wilson, actor and political activist Charlton Heston, Mary Tyler Moore, Alex Haley, Burt Reynolds and Jerry Buss, the late owner of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, NBA Hall of Famer and a lifelong fan and friend of Barnes, was humbled when Barnes captured him and his famous teammates for posterity. 

“I was one of the subjects in his 1987 painting ‘Fastbreak’ that is featured in the CAAM exhibit that was commissioned by the Los Angeles Lakers,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “It shows Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Michael Cooper, Kurt Rambis and me running down the court, the ball midair with no one controlling it. Our feet seem to be floating above the floor and our legs are positioned as if we are dancing to some music that only we can hear.”

Barnes’ paintings also graced the album covers of The Crusaders, Curtis Mayfield and B. B. King.

Probably Barnes’ most popular work is the joyful and jubilant “Sugar Shack,” a painting that depicted black folk dancing with abandon in a local nightclub. It was featured on the classic 1970s television show “Good Times” and appeared on the cover of singer Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” album.

The seed for “Sugar Shack” was planted when Barnes was still a youth. He was intrigued by a nearby juke joint that was filled with dancing and music. His mother said, ‘Don’t go in there, that’s not a Christian place.’ We were not permitted to dance at home,” recalled Barnes.

But at the tender age of 13, Barnes snuck out of the house and into the juke joint where he was astonished to see uninhibited black folks dancing with abandon.

Barnes became particularly fascinated by a woman shimmying in a yellow dress on the dance floor who would reappear in his paintings time and time again for the rest of his life.

Known for his trademark style of painting elongated bodies and drawing his subjects with their eyes closed, Barnes made this observation:

“I began to see, observe, how blind we are to one another’s humanity. … We don’t see into the depths of our interconnection. The gifts, the strength and potential within other human beings. We stop at color quite often. But when you cannot visualize the offerings of another human being you’re obviously not looking at the human being with open eyes.”

By Shirley Hawkins

Contributing Writer