Born Ernest Barnes, Jr. on July 15, 1938 to Ernest Sr. and Fannie Mae Geer Barnes during the Jim Crow era in Durham, North Carolina, his mother worked as a domestic for a prominent attorney. As a child, young Ernest would accompany her to work and was allowed to peruse the extensive collection of art books. One day in junior high school, a teacher found the self-admitted fat, introverted young Barnes drawing in a notebook while hiding from the bullies who taunted him daily. This teacher put him on a weightlifting program and when Barnes graduated from high school, he had excelled in football and track and field.
Segregation prevented him from considering nearby UNC or Duke University, so he attended North Carolina College on a football scholarship and majored in art. He was drafted by the then-World Champion Baltimore Colts football team. He then spent the next five seasons as an offensive lineman for the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos. In 1965, New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin recognized Barnes’ artistic potential and replaced his football salary for one season so he could devote himself “to just paint.” [emphasis mine]. One year later, Barnes made his debut in a critically acclaimed solo exhibition at Grand Central Art Galleries in Manhattan and retired from football. His autobiography “From Pads to Palette” chronicles his transition from athlete to artist.
[. . .]
His famous 1971 “Sugar Shack” dance scene appeared on the “Good Times” television show and on the Marvin Gaye album “I Want You.” This image has been widely imitated and Barnes’ expressive style has influenced countless aspiring artists.
Barnes’ art has been used as an educational tool to empower youth. The power, grace, intensity and fluidity of his work – combined with his celebrated variation of genre and sports themes – has given him an unequaled place in the history of modern art, despite the domination of abstract art throughout his career.