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Ernie Barnes dies at 70; pro football player, successful painter

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Ernie Barnes, a former professional football player who became a successful figurative painter, known for depictions of athletes and ordinary people whose muscled, elongated forms express physical and spiritual struggles, died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 70.

His death was caused by complications of a rare blood disorder, according to his longtime assistant, Luz Rodriguez.

Barnes was a child of the segregated South who transcended racial barriers to play for the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers before pursuing his real dream: to be an artist. He became the official artist of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, whose insights from his trials on the gridiron resulted in powerful, sometimes haunting portraits of agility, strength and the emotional costs of fierce competition.

His style, which critics have described as neo-Mannerist, became familiar to a prime-time television audience in the mid-1970s when producer Norman Lear hired Barnes to "ghost" the paintings by the Jimmie Walker character "J.J." in the groundbreaking African American sitcom "Good Times."

As the backdrop for the show's closing credits, Lear used Barnes' 1971 painting "Sugar Shack," his most famous work. Singer Marvin Gaye later adapted the painting as the cover art for his 1976 album, "I Want You."

"Sugar Shack" shows a Brueghel-like mass of bodies, writhing and jumping to the rhythms in a black jazz club. There is joy, tension and despair in the canvas, which Barnes once said was inspired by a memory of being barred from attending a dance when he was a child. As in nearly all of his paintings, the subjects' eyes are closed, a reflection of the artist's oft-stated belief that "we are blind to each other's humanity."

Singer-songwriter Bill Withers, who was close to Barnes during the last decade of his life, said the artist often spoke of wanting to educate people through his art.

"He meant getting people to look past the superficial into the real vulnerable parts of themselves," said Withers, for whom Barnes completed his last major commission, a painting inspired by Withers' 1971 hit "Grandma's Hands." "He wanted to help people peel away that layer of protection that we all wear to ward off any intrusion into our real private thoughts. He didn't mind people looking deeper into him. I found that fascinating."

Barnes was born into a working-class family in Durham, N.C., on July 15, 1938. His father was a shipping clerk for a large tobacco company, and his mother was a domestic for a wealthy attorney. She brought home books and records that her employer no longer wanted and used them to broaden the cultural horizons of her three sons. She encouraged them to draw pictures from their imaginations instead of using coloring books. The shy and overweight Ernie began drawing to escape from the taunts of his schoolmates.

He was still chubbier than most kids when he reached high school, but a teacher there helped him turn his size into advantage. He started lifting weights, lost his extra pounds and began excelling on the playing field. He became captain of the football team and by graduation had scholarship offers from 26 colleges.

He chose North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University), a historically black institution in Durham, where he played football and majored in art. He left before graduating in 1960 to turn pro. A 6-foot-3, 250-pound offensive guard, he played for a succession of American Football League teams, including the Chargers and the Broncos, for the next five years.

He had kept up with his art when he was playing football, sketching fellow players, who nicknamed him "Big Rembrandt." With little money and a family to support when he left the game, he took a gamble and flew to Los Angeles with several of his canvases and carried them on foot several miles to the office of Chargers co-owner Barron Hilton, who paid him $1,000 for a painting.

After a brief stint as the AFL's official artist, he met with New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin, who offered to pay him $15,500 -- $1,000 more than Barnes had earned in his last season in football -- to develop his skills as a painter for a year. Werblin was so impressed with Barnes' work that he arranged a showing for critics at a New York gallery.

Some critics compared him to George Bellows, the American painter known for his masterful depictions of boxers in the ring.

Soon Barnes was winning commissions from entertainers such as Harry Belafonte, Flip Wilson and Charlton Heston. His works from this period were often commentaries on the brutality of professional football, depicting players with fangs and other grotesque features. "I was reaching for the absurdity of what men can be turned into with football as an excuse," he told Sports Illustrated in 1984.

Other paintings captured the powerful grace of youths playing pickup basketball and the exhaustion of a runner after a race. His series of Olympics posters were "the finest, most effective and moving tribute to the Olympics since the Greeks stopped painting their athletes . . . on black or red grounds," critic Frank Getlein wrote in a 1989 essay.

Barnes began to expand his subject matter in the early 1970s when he moved to the Fairfax district of Los Angeles.

Observing the tight-knit Jewish neighborhood provoked in him a new awareness of black culture and everyday life, reflected in "Sugar Shack" and a traveling exhibition called "The Beauty of the Ghetto." One of the stops on the tour was the North Carolina Museum of Art, where years earlier a museum docent had told Barnes "that black people didn't express themselves as artists."

A longtime resident of Studio City, Barnes, who was married three times, is survived by his wife of 25 years, Bernie; five children, Sean, Deidre, Erin and Paige, all of Los Angeles, and Michael of Virginia Beach, Va.; and a brother, James, of Durham.

A private memorial service will be held at a later date. Memorial donations may be sent to Hillsides Home for Children, 940 Avenue 64, Pasadena, CA 91105.

elaine.woo@latimes.com

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