The Football Journeyman Turned Legendary Artist Who Worked With Kanye West and Marvin Gaye

Before celebrated African-American painter Ernie Barnes worked with Kanye West, Marvin Gaye, and the 1984 Olympics, he drew inspiration from his bloody, violent pro football career.

by Alan Siegel
May 21 2015, 4:34pm

Image courtesy of Ernie Barnes Family Trust

In late December of 1959, a month after the Baltimore Colts selected Ernie Barnes in the 10th round of the NFL Draft, the organization invited him to town so he could sign a contract and attend the league championship game. Two days after Christmas, the North Carolina College offensive lineman watched his new team beat the New York Giants, 31-16, to win its second straight title.

One night soon after, a reflective Barnes jumped out of bed, pulled out a canvas, and began painting a scene. The actual football he'd witnessed recently bored the hell out of him. But he was rapt by the sight of stars like Johnny Unitas, Jim Parker, Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb, and Lenny Moore banding together.

"I placed the players on the bench in a movement to suggest a self-contained unity spanning the breadth and depth of the canvas," Barnes wrote in his 1995 autobiography From Pads to Palette. "The on-the-field action was trivial and mundane. Only the cohesiveness that made them a unit was important. As quickly as it had formed in my mind, it was over. When I stood back from the canvas and viewed it, it was there."

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Barnes called the 20-by-36-inch acrylic painting "The Bench." During his nomadic football career, he carried it wherever he went. In his book, he claims that someone once offered him $25,000 for it. He refused to take the money.

Barnes didn't know it yet, but this was the start of something.

Within a decade, he would become a world-famous figurative painter. Over the course of his life, Barnes created dozens of memorable works that have been exhibited in museums, shown on television and featured on album covers. The paintings J.J. made on Good Times? Those were Ernie Barnes originals. The dance scene on the front of Marvin Gaye's I Want You? That was Barnes' "Sugar Shack." The 9-by-10-foot mural Kanye West commissioned to interpretively depict the experience of his near-fatal car accident? Barnes did that one, too.

"His paintings," West said in 2005, "reflect the soul."

Long before he had celebrity clientele, Barnes had football. He was conflicted about the sport, yet nothing did more to influence his artistic style. His works -- even the many not focused on athletics -- are full of muscular, elongated human figures in motion.

"He always found the fluidity and the energy and the rhythm in the figures," says Luz Rodriguez, Barnes' longtime personal assistant. "In all of his work you can feel the energy and the action."

Master, work — Image courtesy of Ernie Barnes Family Trust

Born in 1938 in Durham, North Carolina, Barnes initially resisted playing football. He preferred drawing to smashing into things. Still, he was bigger than most of the other kids. This made him a target for coaches, who persuaded him to suit up. Barnes eventually became a star lineman at Hillside High School and received a full football scholarship to North Carolina College, a nearby all-black school. (It's now called North Carolina Central University.)

Barnes wanted to be a painter, but a college field trip the newly desegregated North Carolina Museum of Art opened his eyes to the disturbing impediments he'd soon be facing. According to Barnes' autobiography, when he asked a docent where he could find paintings by black artists, she replied, "I'm afraid your people don't express themselves this way." After returning to school, Ed Wilson, the head of the North Carolina College art department and Barnes' mentor, said, "Now you know what you're up against."

Despite what Barnes was up against—he wrote that even his father didn't think that his son would be able to make a living as an artist—Barnes pursued art in addition to football. At the time, North Carolina College alum Sam Jones was just beginning a Hall of Fame basketball career with the Boston Celtics. While back on campus touring the arts building one day, he noticed a painting that he liked. It featured people dancing in a nightclub. Jones purchased "Slow Dance" for $90. It was the first sale Barnes ever made.

"I didn't have much money and he needed money," Jones now says with a laugh. He kept the painting until 1977, when he lost it in a house fire.

In the summer of 1960, Barnes headed to Colts training camp, where he was befriended by the likes of Parker, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, and "Big Daddy" Lipscomb, an All-Pro defensive tackle. The rookie quickly realized there was nothing glamorous about his new job. "When I went to the Colts," Barnes once told Mark Kram of Sports Illustrated, "and saw giant stars like Gino Marchetti and Big Daddy Lipscomb throwing up before a game, I knew this was serious shit, and I had to get where they were living in their heads." For Barnes, reality quickly set in. Before the regular season started, the defending NFL champions cut him.

Instead of joining Baltimore's taxi squad, Barnes signed with the New York Titans of the American Football League. He was miserable, and with good reason. After all, the world of pro football could be horrifying. During a road loss to the Oilers on a sweltering day in October of 1960, he watched distressed teammate Howard Glenn stagger off the field. In the locker room after the game, Barnes saw Glenn sitting naked holding a towel to his chest. As members of the Titans desperately called for a doctor, the 26-year-old offensive guard fell from his chair.

"He sprawled flat on his back, staring toward a ceiling," Barnes later told reporter Sandy Padwe. "I didn't think he could see. Quickly, I went to his side. All around him, the other players had gathered, water from the shower dripping from their bodies."

An ambulance took Glenn to a local hospital, where he died. According to an Associated Press article, the Harris County Texas medical examiner determined that Glenn's death wasn't heat-related but rather "accidental" and "caused by a broken neck." Barnes didn't buy it. Temperatures reportedly topped 90 degrees the day his teammate died in Houston, and Glenn never appeared to sustain a neck injury. The poor medical treatment Glenn received disturbed Barnes, and he told an assistant coach as much. The Titans soon released Barnes, who was happy to go.

One semi-positive came from his brief time in New York: on off days, he was able to visit galleries. At the very least, it was a learning experience, albeit a sobering one.

"Along with the cold welcome of the dealers, their paintings were equally cold," Barnes wrote. "One after another, there were canvases which reminded me of splotches of blood and grass stains on game uniforms. I wondered if the authors of these canvases knew how to draw. If so, why were they refusing to meet life head on and accept its vital statistics. For me, the rhythm of sports were stimulants to my aesthetic sensibilities."

A very talented artist, moments before smashing someone. — Image courtesy of Ernie Barnes Family Trust

Barnes spent the next four years bouncing around the AFL, making stops in San Diego and Denver. As his football career progressed, he began sketching more and more. While with the Broncos, he kept a pencil in his sock during games. Denver coach Jack Faulkner once caught him sketching in a meeting and threatened to fine him for it. Even on the field, his mind wandered toward art. By the end of his football career, Barnes viewed himself as "both observer and participant."

"Now it seemed like being in the arena was for the purpose of nourishing my artistic aspirations," he wrote. "Since no conscious process would turn it off, I decided to go with it, finding my creative cues from aesthetic stimuli of football." Barnes started "distorting and elongating the proportions" of the figures in his sketches, "trying to relate what it felt like within the context of a certain movement."

Barnes played his final AFL game in 1964, and after foot injury cut short a stint with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League, he was done with football.

"When I retired, I hated football with a passion," Barnes told Ebony in 1973. "My early paintings show all the rawness and passion of the game."

His transition to full-time artist was neither instantaneous nor smooth. But things began looking up when Chargers owner Barron Hilton commissioned him to create a painting of All-AFL receiver Lance Alworth. After that, Barnes set out to convince the AFL's owners to hire him the league's official artist. But when he presented his art at a league meeting in Houston, only Jets owner Sonny Werblin seemed interested. He invited Barnes to bring his paintings to New York. When Barnes arrived in the city with his work, including "The Bench," Werblin had art critics evaluate it. In his book, Barnes recalled that Werblin said that the critics loved Barnes's paintings. "You're an artist," said Werblin, who proceeded to offer Barnes a $14,500 salary for six months worth of paintings.

Feel the churn. — Image courtesy of Ernie Barnes Family Trust

Barnes's first exhibition, held at the Grand Central Art Galleries in November 1966, was a success. Within a few years, Barnes had a national following—in fact, one of his most prominent supporters was friend and former Chargers teammate Jack Kemp, who went on to become a U.S. congressman.

While Barnes branched out to other subjects, he continued to paint athletes. Rodriguez first met Barnes when he was appointed the official artist of the 1984 Olympic Games. "He was fascinated by the rhythm of sports," says Rodriguez, who was part of the Olympic organizing committee. He loved the motion of sports like boxing, basketball, and track. "He didn't do any golf paintings," Rodriguez says. "He couldn't get into that."

To help commemorate the 50th anniversary of the NBA in 1996, Barnes created "The Dream Unfolds," a painting now on display at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Sam Jones still has 10 Barnes lithographs hanging on the walls of his Florida home. One features a basketball player rising up to dunk into a peach basket. "You can see the movement even though it's on canvas," Jones says. "You can just see the movement and you know he's not moving."

In 2009, Barnes died of complications caused by a rare blood disorder at the age of 70. Although he'd been an AFL journeyman who openly acknowledged the barbarism of his profession, football never forgot him. Last year, the Pro Football Hall of Fame hosted an exhibit featuring Barnes's work. For the occasion, Bernie, his wife of 25 years, donated her husband's prized painting "The Bench" to the museum. It hangs there today, an example of Barnes's ability to find a little bit of beauty in an otherwise brutal game.