By MARTHA WAGGONER, Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — At heart, Ernie Barnes the professional football player was always Ernie Barnes the artist.
His teammates on the San Diego Chargers nicknamed him “Big Rembrandt” because he was always scribbling on pieces of paper.
He ended up painting vivid and highly acclaimed images from the playing field and from African-American life. He’s most famous for “Sugar Shack,” which shows African-Americans dancing at the Durham Armory. Marvin Gaye used a version of it for an album cover, and a print of it appeared in the closing credits of the sitcom “Good Times.”
Now, an exhibit has opened in his home state titled “The North Carolina Roots of Artist Ernie Barnes.” The exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of History includes 38 paintings by Barnes, many unseen by the public until now, along with several pieces of memorabilia.
It’s the first exhibit of Barnes’ artwork in 11 years, and the first since he died at age 70 in 2009 in Los Angeles. It continues through March 3.
Barnes never considered football his true calling. From his childhood, he was drawn to art. In his 1995 autobiography, “From Pads to Palette,” he wrote, “Throughout my five seasons in the arena of professional football, I remained at the deepest level of my being an artist.”
But he played professionally from 1960 to 1964, signing first with the Baltimore Colts and then with the Titans of New York, the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos. His sports connections led to his first exhibit through the support of New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin. And Barnes credited football with helping him develop the elongation technique for which he’s known.
An art instructor told him “to pay attention to what my body felt like in movement,” Barnes once said. “And when I did that, it was an elongated feeling. … I hate to think, had I not played sports, what my work would look like.”
He also spoke of how the “dehumanization” of professional football played out in his art. “I painted until I exhausted the hate,” he said, according to comments provided by his estate.
Troy Vincent, the NFL’s vice president of operations, is probably the largest collector of Barnes’ art and someone in whom Barnes confided about his love-hate relationship with football. Vincent estimates that he owns just shy of 30 Barnes’ paintings, most of them commissioned and never seen by the public.
In a phone interview, Vincent said that he and his wife “didn’t classify it as black art. He happens to be African-American, but it’s not black art. It’s art.”
At the time of Barnes’ death, Paul Von Blum, an art history and African American studies professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, called him one of the premier figurative artists of his era.
Barnes, who was born in 1938 in Durham during the Jim Crow era, graduated from what’s now North Carolina Central University. His painting, “Homecoming,” shows a marching band in Durham with U.S. 15-501 signs in the background.
“Ernie said when he was growing up, the high school band used to come down from the segregated area and make the turn into the black community, and the band would kick it up right there,” Luz Rodriguez, his longtime assistant and estate trustee said last week in Raleigh before the exhibit opened. “So that’s what he painted.”
“Sugar Shack” came from Barnes’ memories growing up in Durham, Rodriguez said. His mother had told the 13-year-old Barnes that “they don’t do Christian things there” so of course he had to sneak in to find out what was happening, she said.
Actor and comedian Eddie Murphy owns the painting now, exhibit curator Katie Edwards said. A second version that Barnes painted is part of the North Carolina museum exhibit.
Barnes could bring to life “the hopes and dreams of what could be — families together, strong men, strong women, the true representation of the godly family,” Vincent said. Barnes was able to “share our dark past yet articulate in color what the future could be — the proudness of our history, the proudness of our future. Ernie encapsulated all of that.”
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