BAIA BITS: Ernie Barnes


Little Moments Where Knowledge Meets Art

In 1959, at age 21, he sold his first painting for $90 to Boston Celtic Sam Jones. The piece, entitled “Slow Dance,” was later destroyed in a fire at Jones’ residence.

Nonetheless, the piece was the beginning of a long and successful career in art for the incomparable Ernie Barnes. Born July 15, 1938 in Durham, North Carolina during the Jim Crow era, Barnes grew up near the city’s Hayti District in a community known as “The Bottom.” The son of shipping clerk, Ernest E. Barnes, Sr., and staff supervisor, Fannie Mae Geer, Barnes would regularly go to work with his mother where he was encouraged by a lawyer to study artbooks and classical music. As a result, Barnes was familiar with the works and lives of masters like Michelangelo and Toulouse-Lautrec upon entering first-grade.

Bullied by schoolmates as a self-described “chubby and unathletic” child, Barnes was a loner who immersed himself in sketchbooks, seldom engaging with other students. According to his official biography, “One day, Ernest was drawing in his notebook in a quiet area of the school. He was discovered hiding there by the masonry teacher Tommy Tucker, who was also the weightlifting coach and a former athlete. Tucker was intrigued with Barnes’ drawings so he asked the aspiring artist about his grades and goals. Tucker shared his own experience of how bodybuilding improved his strength and outlook on life. That encounter would begin Barnes’ discipline and dedication that would permeate his life. By his senior year at Hillside High School, Barnes became the captain of the football team and state champion in the shot put.” 

In 1956, Barnes received over two dozen athletic scholarship offers upon graduating high school. Given his mother wanted him close, she promised him a car if he selected nearby, all-Black North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University). There, he majored in art, ran track, and played football. While on a college field trip to the recently desegregated North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, Barnes asked a docent where he could find paintings by Negro artists. His biography notes he was promptly told, “Your people don’t express themselves that way.”

Barnes proceeded to spend his life expressing himself that way. In 1959, the same year he began his professional football career upon being drafted by the world champion Baltimore Colts, Barnes sold his first piece of art to Jones. And though his football career would eventually come to a close, his art would endure. While exploring such themes as urban life and closemindedness, Barnes forged a prominent name for himself in both the art world and society at large. He put on exhibitions; made celebrity appearances as a “football player-turned-artist” on such popular TV shows as To Tell The Truth; acted in several motion pictures; and had his art represented on numerous television programs, including the one that would immortalize him as an artist, the popular 70s series, Good Times

In 1979—23 years after the museum docent told him that Negroes don’t express themselves through art—Barnes returned to the North Carolina Museum of Art, this time, for a solo exhibition as a highly successful artist. Among the many attendees was North Carolina governor, James Hunt. 

Barnes died from cancer on April 27, 2009. Part of his ashes were scattered in Durham, not far from where his family home once stood.

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