Artist, football player Barnes, 70, dies

By BASN Wire Services
Updated: April 29, 2009

ATLANTA — Renowned artist Ernie Barnes, a former pro football player who switched to painting full time after his sports career ended, has died, according to published reports quoting his longtime personal assistant.

The assistant, Luz Rodriguez, told dailynews.com in Los Angeles that Barnes, 70, died Monday night at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.

Barnes played for the Denver Broncos in 1964 and 1965, earning $13,500 as a starting guard. Ever since he was boy in Durham, N.C., he was interested in drawing and he was an art major at North Carolina Central.

As a Bronco, Barnes each week would sketch the defensive lineman who would be across from him in that Sunday’s game.

“The drawings would help me understand the man I would be facing, ” he said in a 1984 article that appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Barnes sold the drawings to teammates and friends for as little as $30.

While on the playing field, Barnes said he was studying the human form and developing an eye for capturing the drama of sports.

He left the Broncos, played briefly in Canada, broke an ankle and retired. Several months later he attended an American Football League owners’ meeting and was named the league’s official artist, but when Al Davis became commissioner a few weeks later, Barnes was told there was no money for an official artist.

Later, New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin became Barnes’ patron for a year, and at the end of the year Werblin sponsored a New York show for Barnes. Every painting sold. Werblin told Barnes he was on his own.

Barnes moved to Los Angeles and began studying art history and painting.

” I always figured what I liked, other people would like. I painted within myself, from my own experience.”

In a 1995 interview with the AJC, he said, “The gift that athletics gave me was an enhancement of my sensory perceptions and an understanding of what the body feels like in movement.” Barnes added. “In a way, football was an advanced art class for the study of human anatomy.”

His paintings, now worth thousands of dollars, became gallery favorites and were purchased by Hollywood stars, professional sports team owners and singers such as Marvin Gaye and Sammy Davis Jr.

“Sugar Shack,” the painting he became famous for when it was featured repeatedly on the ’70s sitcom “Good Times,” was purchased for $75,000 from the Marvin Gaye estate by comedian Eddie Murphy.

Barnes was the official artist for the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and he was commissioned to do six original paintings for Olympic posters.