Perhaps it’s easy for Ernie Barnes to prod, to encourage, to scold from where he now stands.
Raised in a Southern ghetto, he parlayed football prowess into a college degree and a brief career in the professional leagues. After that he became a painter, employing a highly personal style that has been ignored by critics but embraced by such influential collectors as Ethel Kennedy, Norman Lear and Bill Cosby. In 1984, at what may have been the pinnacle of his public exposure, he was named the official artist of the Los Angeles Olympic Games.
These days, a Barnes original commands upward of $18,000. Art has paid for a gated home in Studio City and a Mercedes-Benz to park in the driveway. The painter exudes bravado--a burly physique and wide-brimmed hat, epaulets and a cigar.
Yet wrapped inside this package is a thoughtful and gentle demeanor. Barnes winces at the suggestion that he has forgotten where he came from, the hardship of his youth. In the wake of the Los Angeles riots, he is determined to deliver a message to the city’s poor and especially the children.
“If a young kid wants to look at Ernie Barnes, he would have to realize that nothing magic brought me here,” the 53-year-old painter said. “Whatever I am today, you see the residue of struggle. There’s no other prescription for success.”
What would he tell the looters and rioters? The words are blunt: “You can wallow in your hurt and that can be valid. But don’t bring it to me and don’t bring other people down.”
Barnes has taken this message to the streets the best way he knows how. A painting of his--depicting three children of different colors huddled around a flower that sprouts from cracked pavement--has been enlarged and mounted on a billboard overlooking the intersection of Crenshaw Boulevard and Homeland Drive, in the area of the rioting.
“We all can overcome hurt,” he said, by way of elaboration. “We do it through positive means.”
Barnes’ paintings most often depict rigorous action. He began his art career by portraying what he knew best: football players. Later, he focused on scenes such as girls skipping rope in an alley, men gossiping in a barber shop and a nightclub crowd being raucous. These tableaux were used as backdrops for the closing credits of the 1970s television series “Good Times.”
“What he does is capture the essence of black urban lifestyles,” said Loris Crawford, director of the Savacou Gallery in New York. Barnes, one of the first African-American painters to have his work widely reproduced and sold on the commercial market, is among the gallery’s most popular artists. “The type of work he does has a mass appeal. Most African-Americans are familiar with his work through ‘Good Times’ and because he did a cover for a Marvin Gaye album.”
The inhabitants of his art are almost always in motion, their limbs stretched like rubber bands. “It’s an effort to relay the truth of what I experienced,” Barnes said. “When you are running, you know what the muscles feel like. It’s an elongated feeling.” And, in a strikingly stylistic touch, nearly every one of the people he depicts has closed eyes.
“I started doing that in the early 1970s when I realized how blind we all are to each other’s humanity,” the painter said. “We can’t see the gifts and the potential in other humans around us.”
An exception is a portrait of Mother Clara Hale, whose Hale House in Harlem cares for babies who are born addicted to drugs. “Someone who gives as much love as Mother Hale, and it doesn’t matter what color the babies are, I couldn’t paint her with closed eyes. Her eyes are wide open.”
Art historians have labeled Barnes a neo-Mannerist and compared him to such predecessors as George Bellows, an early 20th-Century realist, and Thomas Hart Benton, a regionalist painter who gained notoriety in the 1930s.
Barnes’ paintings “clearly illuminate that hope and poignantly portray that steady concern Ernie feels for his fellows,” wrote John Stuart Evans, director of the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York, which has represented him since 1966. Evans praised “the clarity and vigor” of the artist’s vision.
Barnes began developing that vision as a child. His mother worked as a maid for a wealthy Durham, N.C., attorney and sometimes brought her young son along. The attorney, a man named Fuller, would show him pictures in art history books.
“By the time I started first grade, I knew Rembrandt,” Barnes recalled. “I knew the works of Michelangelo.”
Drawing became a best friend to the pudgy, shy boy who was often teased at school. Creation was an escape. But when puberty came along, Barnes literally grew out of art.
He began exercising and made the high school football team. North Carolina Central University later offered him a scholarship to play offensive guard. Barnes eventually graduated with a degree in art, but the gridiron took precedence.
“It was easy for me to say that I could always paint later, but I couldn’t always be a football player,” he recalled.
The Baltimore Colts thought highly enough of his skills to draft him in 1960, but the 6-3, 250-pound guard didn’t make the team. Fate may have played a hand because he wound up in the rival American Football League playing for the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers’ quarterback was Jack Kemp, who, years later as a U.S. congressman, would help get him named to the Olympic post.
Over the next five years, Barnes took the journeyman’s path through football, playing in Denver for a while and spending an injury-shortened season with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League.
“I brought a different frame of reference to football,” he said. “While I was playing, I had flashes of shapes that I’d seen in art books. I realized I was participating in an art.”
So when it came time to retire, in 1965, the decision to return to painting was easy. Making a living as a painter, however, seemed daunting.
The first thing Barnes did was visit hotel magnate Barron Hilton, a part-owner of the Chargers, and ask for a job as the AFL’s official artist. Hilton agreed to propose the matter to other team owners. He also paid Barnes $1,000 to produce a portrait of the Chargers’ star wide receiver, Lance Alworth.
Soon after, Sonny Werblin, owner of the New York Jets, summoned Barnes to New York. “He said, ‘Let me see what you can do,’ ” Barnes recalled. So the budding artist flew across the country and carried 18 paintings on the subway, then waited outside a gallery while Werblin deliberated.
The businessman walked out of the gallery and put his arm around Barnes.
“He asked me how much I’d made playing football the year before,” Barnes said. “I told him it was about $13,500. He paid me my football salary plus $1,000 and told me to paint for a year.”
Werblin arranged for Barnes to have his first exhibition, in 1966, at the Grand Central Art Galleries. The painter sold 12 pieces and his career was launched.
“Mr. Werblin told me, ‘Now it’s all up to you.’ ”
There have been lean times over the past 26 years, times when Barnes ran low on money. He had five children to support over the course of three marriages. Other African-American artists, such as Charles White, provided him with inspiration to persevere. And he says he was always able to sell a painting when he absolutely needed to.
A particularly successful 1973 show in Atlanta paid for the San Fernando Valley home, which mirrors the artist himself with its bright gardens and, inside, a working den that is brooding enough for an English manor. He lives there with third wife Bernie and sometimes meets neighbor Alex Karras, the football player-turned-actor, at a nursery where both men shop for flowers.
In recent years, Barnes has stayed busy enough to require a personal assistant. He painted a hockey scene for Jerry Buss and a 20-foot mural, filled with scenes from the first four “Rocky” films, for Sylvester Stallone. He is working on another commissioned mural for Seton Hall University.
He also continues to exhibit, showing at the Museum of African Art in Washington, the Spectrum Fine Art Gallery in New York and currently at the Heritage Gallery in Los Angeles.
But he is probably best known for his involvement with the Olympic Games. Barnes finally became an “official” artist after asking friends such as Kemp, sports commentator Frank Gifford and ABC powerhouse Roone Arledge to put in a good word with Peter V. Ueberroth, then president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee.
It is interesting that Ueberroth and Barnes have crossed paths again. This time, Ueberroth heads Rebuild L.A. and Barnes’ artwork, “Growth Through Limits,” stands as a symbol of hope in South Los Angeles. Patrick Media Group donated the 48-foot billboard as part of a community service project that was in the planning stages before the riots. Barnes awarded $1,000 of his own money to the high school student who submitted the best slogan for the billboard (“Strength and unity can break through all things”). 100 Black Men of Los Angeles also got involved, as did the Show Coalition, an arts and entertainment network for political action.
“The African-American community is just beginning to use art as another form of communicating,” said Dr. Warren W. Valdry, president of 100 Black Men of Los Angeles, the local chapter of a nationwide organization that seeks economic and social gains for minorities. “Through the power of the media, Ernie’s billboard shows what we ought to be about: unity and people working together.”
The oversized artwork will be circulated to other locations this summer. Barnes would like to see more such messages replace the cigarette and alcohol advertisements that seem to dominate city streets. Again, he speaks of positive images.
“I came out of a Southern ghetto, off a dirt street. I wasn’t supposed to become an artist,” Barnes said. His voice slips into its preaching tone, soft yet insistent. “That’s why we have words like ‘initiative.’ Striving for self-improvement is one of the deepest and most distinctive human compulsions.”