Ernest Barnes, Jr. was born in “the bottom” community of Jim Crow era Durham, North Carolina. His parents were typical hardworking North Carolinians. Ernest E. Barnes, Sr. (1900–1966) his father, worked as a shipping clerk for Liggett Myers Tobacco Company while his mother, Fannie Mae Geer (1905–2004) oversaw the household staff for prominent Durham attorney Frank Fuller, Jr.
Nicknamed “June”, the young Ernest was allowed to peruse the art books and listen to the classical music collection in Fuller’s library when accompanying his mother to work. Intrigued and captivated by the works of master artists like Toulouse – Lautrec, Delacroix, Rubens and Michelangelo, he was familiar with classical European art by the time he entered first grade. By his teen years Barnes could decode and appreciate many of the expensive masterpieces within the walls of mainstream museums – although it would be six more years before he was allowed entrance due to segregation.
The chubby and un-athletic Barnes was often the target of bullies as a young student. The almost constant teasing drove him to seek refuge in quieter areas of the school where he could read, study and relax but mainly this allowed him to work in his sketchbooks. One day during one of his sketching sessions masonry teacher and former athlete Tommy Tucker noticed the quality of his drawings. This sparked a conversation between the two about Barnes’ goals and dreams. During the conversation Tucker shared his own experience of how bodybuilding improved his strength and outlook on life. That chance encounter was the genesis of the discipline and dedication that would permeate Ernie’s life and career. In his senior year at Hillside High School Barnes became the captain of the football team and state champion in both the shot put and discus throw.
Graduating from Durham’s Hillside High School in 1956, Barnes received 26 athletic scholarship offers. However Jim Crow segregation prevented the very talented Barnes from attending nearby Duke or UNC at Chapel Hill. After his mother promised to buy him a car if he would live at home young Ernest decided to attend the historically black North Carolina College which is now North Carolina Central University. At the time North Carolina College happened to be located across the street from Hillside High School. At NCC, he majored in art on a full athletic scholarship. His track coach was the legendary Dr. Leroy T. Walker. Ernie played both tackle and center for the NCC football team and was once selected to the All-Conference team.
On a college art class field trip to the newly desegregated North Carolina Museum of Art, an 18 year old Ernie Barnes asked where he could find “paintings by Negro artists.” The tour guide responded, “Your people don’t express themselves that way.”Ironically 22 years later in 1978 Barnes returned to the museum for a solo exhibition, hosted by North Carolina Governor James Hunt.
While studying art at North Carolina College under the tutelage of art professor Ed Wilson, Barnes was able to lay a solid foundation for later artistic development. Wilson was a sculptor who convinced Barnes to paint from his own life experiences. “He made me conscious of the fact that the artist who is useful to America is one who studies his own life and records it through the medium of art, manners and customs of his own experiences.”
Surprisingly, Barnes was often ambivalent about his experiences in football. In personal appearances as well as in interviews Ernie would often express his hatred for the violence and physical strain of the sport. However, his years as an athlete are responsible for his unique perspective and observations of the body in motion. “(Wilson) told me to pay attention to what my body felt like in movement. Within that elongation, there’s a feeling and attitude and expression. I hate to think had I not played sports what my work would look like.”
Barnes sold his first painting in 1959 for $90 to Boston Celtics great Sam Jones. The painting called Slow Dance was later destroyed in a fire at Jones’ home.
Based on his use of elongated figures, clear serpentine lines, unusual sense of space and unique color palette, critics describe Barnes’ work as neo-mannerist. Art critic Frank Getlein credited Barnes as the founder of the neo-Mannerism movement – because of the similarity of technique and composition prevalent during the 16th century, as practiced by such masters as Michelangelo and Raphael. Early exposure to classical styles of painting had a profound impact upon the future painter’s creative style, at least in this writer’s opinion.
In 1984 Barnes was appointed the Official Sports Artist for the Games of the XXIII Olympiad. Peter Ueberroth, president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee said Barnes “captured the essence of the Olympics” and charged him to “portray the city’s ethnic diversity, the power and emotion of sports competition, the singleness of purpose and hopes that go into the making of athletes the world over.” The committee commissioned Barnes to create five Olympic-themed paintings and serve as an official Olympic spokesman to encourage the artistic and academic development of inner city youth.
In 1985 Barnes was named the first Sports Artist of the Year by the United Sates Sports Academy.
In 1987 Barnes was commissioned by the Los Angeles Lakers to create a painting in tribute to their NBA World Champion team of that year. The painting called Fastbreak, depicted players including Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Kurt Rambis and Michael Cooper.
In 1996 Carolina Panthers football team owner and Barnes’ former pro-football teammate Jerry Richardson and his wife Rosalind, commissioned the large painting Victory in Overtime (approximately 7 ft. x 14 ft.). It was unveiled before the team’s debut season and hangs permanently in the stadium owner’s suite.
To commemorate their 50th anniversary in 1996, the NBA commissioned Barnes to create a painting with the theme, “Where we were, where we are, and where we are going.” The painting, The Dream Unfolds hangs in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts,. A limited edition of lithographs was made, with the first 50 prints going to each member of the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.
In 2004 Barnes was named America’s Best Painter of Sports by the American Sport Art Museum & Archives.
Other major sports commissions include paintings for the New Orleans Saints, Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots NFL team owners.
The unique style of Ernie Barnes has influenced a great number of artists. An unpleasant result of this may be the numerous copyright infringement lawsuits settled during Barnes lifetime, others are still pending.
Barnes’ most famous work, Sugar Shack was created in the early 1970′s. When it was seen on the hit 70’s situation comedy Good Times and used for the cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You, the painting gained great international fame.
According to Barnes, Sugar shack was inspired by his childhood, during which he was not “able to go to a dance.” Interviewed in 2008, Barnes said, “Sugar Shack is a recall of a childhood experience. It was the first time my innocence met with the sins of dance. The painting transmits rhythm so the experience is re-created in the person viewing it to show that African – Americans utilize rhythm as a way of resolving physical tension.” Though beloved by African Americans Sugar Shack hasn’t stood up well to general art criticism. The painting is often criticized as the embodiment of “black romantic art”, which has been described as the “visual-art equivalent of the Chitlin’ circuit.
On the original Sugar Shack, Barnes’ hometown Durham, North Carolina radio station WRSC was featured on a banner. The station’s frequency was incorrectly shown as 620, though it was actually 1410. Barnes had a lapse in memory, confusing what he used to hear WSRC’s on-air personality Norfley Whitted saying “620 on your dial” for when Whitted was at his former station WDNC in the early 1950′s.
After Marvin Gaye requested permission to use Sugar Shack as the cover for his I Want You album, Barnes adjusted the image to show references to the album, including banners hanging from the ceiling to promote the album’s singles.
On March 25,1983, during the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever anniversary television special on March 25, 1983, tribute was paid to Sugar Shack with a dance interpretation of the painting. I remember this interpretive dance quite vividly!
Sugar Shack successfully captures the feeling of being out at a typical African American night club on a Friday or Saturday night back in day. We are immediately captivated by the visual poetry of the bodies moving with a rhythmic flow reminiscent of pulsating soul music. It’s no wonder Marvin Gaye wanted this imagery for his album cover.
The image is pure visual celebration; it invites your eye to move throughout, darting back and forth from figure to figure, shape to shape and color to color. The people move with eyes closed as if visiting some higher plane of consciousness, lost in some heightened state of being or spirituality, melding with the music and one another.
The most successful aspect of Sugar Shack is the way Barnes captured physical strain and dynamic movement through the extension of arms and legs and the swaying of hips. We see the figures as individual men and women who happen to be dancing in pairs, physically relating to one another and to other couples. This creates a sense of unity among all the figures in the piece, including the band.
Sugar Shack’s composition is also successful in unifying background with foreground. As readers of the English language our eyes habitually scan from left to right. The design invites you to enter the painting through the banners in the upper left and follow the staircase and balcony until they are pulled back to the point of emphasis— the dance floor.
In conclusion, Sugar Shack captures the raw energy of black bodies in motion in a way that’s almost spiritual. It also addresses the intricate social structures of our community within the context of a communal setting. The characters in the painting relating to one another, coming together in peace and harmony to shake off whatever struggles they encountered during the week is a powerful expression of who we are as a people. You don’t have to take my word for it, the classic 1970’s television show Good Times approved this piece as representative of black life and culture by showing it in the program’s closing credits.