Ernie Barnes: Professional Athlete Turned Painter


Considered one of the leading African American artists and well-known for his unique style of energy and movement, Ernie Barnes is the first American professional athlete to become a noted painter. 

Ernest Eugene Barnes, Jr. was born July 15, 1938 in Durham, North Carolina during the Jim Crow era. He lived with his parents and younger brother in what was then-called “The Bottom,” a community near the Hayti District of the city. His father, Ernest E. Barnes, Sr. (1899 – 1966) worked as a shipping clerk for Liggett Myers Tobacco Company in Durham. His mother, Fannie Mae Geer (1905 – 2004) oversaw the household staff for a prominent Durham attorney and Board of Education member, Frank L. Fuller, Jr.



Barnes only attended racially segregated schools. In 1956 he graduated from Hillside High in Durham with 26 athletic scholarship offers. Segregation prevented him from considering nearby Duke or the University of North Carolina. His mother promised him a car if he lived at home, so he attended the all-Black North Carolina College at Durham (formerly North Carolina College for Negroes, now North Carolina Central University) which was located across the street from his high school. At North Carolina College he majored in art on a full athletic scholarship. His track coach was the famed Dr. Leroy T. Walker. Barnes played the football positions of tackle and center at North Carolina Central University.


At age 18, on a college art class field trip to the newly desegregated North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, Barnes inquired where he could find “paintings by Negro artists.” The docent responded, “Your people don’t express themselves that way.” Twenty-three years later, Barnes returned to the museum for a solo exhibition. North Carolina Governor James Hunt attended the exhibit.

In 1990 Barnes was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts by North Carolina Central University.

In 1999 Barnes was bestowed “The University Award,” the highest honor by The University of North Carolina Board of Governors.


Football Career

Barnes’ football career included stints with the Baltimore Colts (1959-60), the Titans of New York (1960), San Diego Chargers (1960-62), and Denver Broncos (1963-64). Barnes was often fined by Denver Coach Jack Faulkner when caught sketching during team meetings. One of the sketches that he was fined $100 for sold years later for $1000. 

In 1965, after his second season with the Broncos, Barnes signed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Canada. In the final quarter of their last exhibition game, Barnes fractured his right foot, in effect, ending his professional football career.


Shortly after his final football game, Barnes went to the 1965 owners meeting in Houston in hopes of becoming the football league’s official artist. There he was introduced to New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin, who was impressed by Barnes and his art. He paid for Barnes to bring his paintings to New York. Later they met at a gallery and unbeknownst to Barnes, three art critics were there to evaluate his paintings. They told Werblin that Barnes was “the most expressive painter of sports since George Bellows.”


Art Career

Barnes credits his college instructor Ed Wilson for laying the foundation for his development as an artist. Wilson was a sculptor who instructed 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.”


All his life, Barnes was ambivalent about his football experience. In interviews and in personal appearances, Barnes said he hated the violence and the physical torment of the sport. However, his years as an athlete gave him unique, in-depth observations. “(Wilson) told me to pay attention to what my body felt like in movement. Within that elongation, there’s a feeling, an attitude and expression. I hate to think had I not played sports what my work would look like.”


Notable paintings by Barnes include:


  • “Slow Dance” sold at age 21 in 1959 for $90 to Boston Celtic Sam Jones. It was subsequently lost in a fire at Jones’ home.


  • “The Sugar Shack” painting on Marvin Gaye’s 1976 “I Want You”


  • Throughout the “Good Times” television series (1974-79) most of the paintings by the character JJ are works by Ernie Barnes. 


Barnes died on April 27, 2009 at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, California from myeloid leukemia. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered in Durham, North Carolina near the site of where his family home once stood, and at the beach in Carmel, California, one of his favorite cities.


To read more about Ernie Barnes go to the official Ernie Barnes website.

"The Sugar Shack" by Ernie Barnes