-- Ernie Barnes
My friend Lisa sent me the New York Times article today about the passing of the great and prolific artist Ernie Barnes, a son of North Carolina. Of course I had heard about the death of this artistic genius on NPR, but hadn't read any articles or stories yet because I guess I didn't want to accept it.
When I see the "Sugar Shack" painting (shown above), of course I think of Marvin Gaye's "I Want You" recording, since the work was featured on the cover of that astounding piece of music (my favorite of Marvin Gaye's work). And we all know that "Sugar Shack" was featured in the opening credits of the sitcom "Good Times." (Barnes' work would also periodically pop up on "Good Times," as it was used to represent the artistry of J.J., a character on the show who was not only a clown but a supposed gifted artist.)
"A model of energy and vitality, the [Sugar Shack] reveals a vigorous fusion of music and dance, underscoring the dynamism of the entire hall," Paul Von Blum wrote in his 1996 essay, Advancing the Figurative Tradition.
"The frenetic activity encourages a release of the accumulated tensions of the week or month. Signs informing patrons of a live Marvin Gaye appearance and other events indicate a well-established locale to escape the pressures of daily life," Blum wrote.
You can't tell me that Barnes has not influenced a host of American artists. If you look at the movement, style, colors, and emotion of his work, you can see the echoes of his art in countless African-American painters.
Barnes, who began drawing as a child, seemed to have turned to art as therapy from feelings of isolation. Growing up in Durham, N.C. he was overweight and shy. One of his junior high school teachers found him drawing in a notebook as he hid away from harassing bullies. He was encouraged to lift weights and eventually turned to sports as an escape. Barnes went on to play professional football as an offensive lineman in the old American Football League. He played in the 1960s for the New York Titans, the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos. But art won out over football, and Barnes permanently left the football fields for the canvasses that he so magically brought to life.
Here's an excerpt from the New York Times, April 30:
“One day on the playing field I looked up and the sun was breaking through the clouds, hitting the unmuddied areas on the uniforms, and I said, ‘That’s beautiful!’ ” he wrote on a Web site devoted to his work, sundaysgladiators.com. “I knew then that it was all over being a player. I was more interested in art. So I traded my cleats for canvas, my bruises for brushes, and put all the violence and power I’d felt on the field into my paintings.”
Although I'm very saddened by his death, I know Barnes' work will continue to inspire and influence budding artists for years to come.
Barnes said he paints his subjects with their eyes slightly closed because he believes, "We don't see each other." He said, "We are blind to each other's humanity." Although I love Barnes' work -- some of it is so moving and striking that it makes me stop and take in an extra breath -- I hope he's not totally right about us not recognizing the humanity in humans. I hope there are times when we can, indeed, really see each other.
Here's to Ernest Eugene "Ernie" Barnes, Jr. who was born on July 15, 1938, and died April 27, 2009. May he rest in peace.