Ernie Barnes, painter who played pro football, dies

Staff writersApril 29, 2009 

Ernie Barnes, the Durham-born former professional football player and painter best known for the "Sugar Shack" dance scene that appeared on a Marvin Gaye album and in the closing credits of the "Good Times" TV show, died this week in California.

He was 70.

Hailed as a pioneer of the "neo-mannerist" style, Barnes' use of elongated figures in motion has been widely imitated. Among his career achievements, Barnes was named official artist of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and was honored in 2004 as "America's Best Painter of Sports" by the American Sports Art Museum.

"Ernie Barnes is one of the premier figurative artists of the late 20th and 21st centuries. His richly detailed paintings and drawings chronicling the lives of people have made a profound contribution to the contemporary history of American art," Paul Von Blum, a lecturer in African-American studies and art history at the University of California, Los Angeles, said.

Before he was famous, Barnes was a football player at Hillside High School with a passion for art. After graduating from high school, Barnes enrolled at North Carolina College, now N.C. Central University, on a football scholarship.

Drafted into professional football in 1959, Barnes, a lineman, played for the New York Titans, Baltimore Colts, San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos.

Although he was always sketching and painting, his art career took off after his retirement from football in the mid-1960s. "Sugar Shack" appeared on the cover of the 1976 Marvin Gaye album "I Want You." Although Barnes' art provided him with a good living, he didn't like the limelight, said his brother, James Barnes.

"Ernie was the type of guy who just wanted to be an artist," James said. As for fame, "he was too laid-back for all of that."

Durham provided inspiration for Barnes' art. "Sugar Shack," James said, was inspired by scenes from the Durham Armory, where musicians, including James Brown, would make tour stops.

Growing up, daughter Deidre Barnes of Durham said her father wouldn't let his children have coloring books. He said it would "stifle my creativity," she said, laughing . He gave his children blank sheets of paper on which to color.

Ernie Barnes was born with a rare blood disorder that eventually contributed to his death, said James. He died Monday night in a Los Angeles hospital, near where he had made his home for decades.

James said Ernie loved flowers. Their mother used to say that he was "marked for flowers" because he had a birthmark that looked like a pansy.

Until the end, James said, his brother enjoyed flowers. He said thousands of flowers were planted in Ernie's California backyard.

"His yard is lit up right now."

thomasi.mcdonald@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4533

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