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Awesome Men Throughout History: Ernie Barnes

This week’s Awesome Men Throughout History returns to the visual arts, because it’s been a while since we talked about that, and we’re also going to talk about sports because this week’s subject?Ernie Barnes?was deeply involved in both.

Ernie was a professional football player whose career included stints with the Baltimore Colts, the New York Jets (then called the Titans of New York), the San Diego Chargers, the Denver Broncos, and the Canadian Football League. He was also a painter whose art has been described as ?neo-mannerist,? due to the compositional tension in his work, as well as the colors, exaggerations of the human figure, and line clarity that were present throughout his work.

Ernie also made it a point to capture scenes from lower-class black communities and present them in a positive light, since he rightfully felt that black people were done a disservice by their media representation at the time.

Ernie grew up near Durham, NC, and was a chubby, unpopular kid who learned to draw as a means of escape from bullying. The masonry teacher at his school took a liking to him and got him into bodybuilding. Given Ernie’s natural dedication to things, he ended up as captain of his high school football team and a state champion in the shot put and discus throw by the time he was a senior.

It’s funny what exercise does for solitary people, isn’t it? Ernie’s experience with weightlifting is similar to how Henry Rollins prospered after getting himself into shape. Muscles do a lot for a man’s confidence, it seems.

Anyway, Ernie had 26 athletic scholarship offers for college when he graduated from high school, although Duke and UNC were off-limits because of segregation. He ended up going to North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University) and majoring in art.

This led to an unfortunate moment when he asked about black artists at the North Carolina Museum of Art and was told that ?your people don?t express themselves that way.? Hurtful.

So Ernie made football his career, even though he disliked the violence and physical difficulties of the sport and was pretty open about it in interviews. I can’t say that I blame him. Getting roughhoused by 280-pound dudes is no way to make a living, even if it is only for 17 weeks a year.

His artwork is great (check out some examples of it) but his most famous piece is probably ?Sugar Shack,? which was both the cover of a Marvin Gaye album and part of the opening credit sequence for Good Times. His work was really, gloriously alive, and full of the visual kinetics that an athlete would understand better than most other people.

Here’s CNN’s take on Ernie’s art and career, which is surprisingly good for CNN.


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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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