‘Dy-no-mite!’ Retired NFL player Ernie Barnes embraced art with gusto

February 5, 2018 GMT

When Sandra Neil Wallace worked as a sports reporter for ESPN, she came across the same art in the homes of many of the athletes she interviewed. Curious, she finally asked about the paintings with a distinct style that seemed familiar. Just who was this artist?

The answer shocked her: The artist was an ex-football player whose work had graced album covers by Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, and whose life was the inspiration for the TV sitcom “Good Times.”

“When people say they don’t know Ernie Barnes, they likely know his paintings but don’t know the artist,” says Wallace, the author of the book “Between The Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery” (Simon & Schuster). “J. J. Evans’ character (played by Jimmie Walker) is based on Ernie Barnes and Ernie’s paintings were shown as J. J.’s paintings.”

Wallace and Caldecott honor recipient and illustrator Bryan Collier will appear Feb. 4 at Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in Oakland as guests of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Words & Pictures series.

Barnes’ professional football career was short. Drafted out of North Carolina College by the Baltimore Colts in 1959, he went on to play with the New York Titans, San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos of the then nascent American Football League, and briefly with Saskatchewan of the Canadian Football League, his career lasting only five years.

Barnes’ short stint in pro football wasn’t due to a lack of talent. A coach once told him he could be a great player if gave up art. But Barnes, who often sketched images while on the sidelines during games, refused to quit drawing and painting.

Athlete and artist

“In society we’re conditioned to pick one thing,” Wallace says. “To checkmark that one box, that you’re either creative, smart, or athletic. Why can’t we be all of those things? What I was so impressed about Ernie was he never believed in those boxes. He chose his own destiny. From the time he was five years old, he identified himself as an artist, and he found a pathway to his artistic dreams through football.”

Not that the path was easy. As a child with no money for art supplies, Barnes used sticks to trace images in mud. In high school he hid his art from other students to avoid bullying. He was more open about his desire to draw and paint as a professional football player and his teammates called him “Big Rembrandt”; coincidentally, Barnes shared a birthday with the Dutch Master.

Nothing if resilient, Barnes even turned a broken hand into an advantage.

“I love the fact that he started a new art movement because he had to find a new way to paint and sketch,” Wallace says. “He elongated the motion and the movement and that became Neo-Mannerism.”

After Barnes retired from football, he embraced art with gusto and took advantage of his connections. He became the official artist of the AFL and sports artist of the 1984 Olympic Games. His numerous paintings include “Fast Break,” which depicts the 1987 Los Angeles Lakers; “The Bench,” which is featured in the Pro Football Hall of Fame; and “Sugar Shack,” which graced the Marvin Gaye “I Want You” and was featured in the credits of “Good Times.”

“I wrote “Between the Lines” because I want kids to know art is for everyone,” Wallace says. “And artists come from everywhere. Artists are Frida Kahlo, a self-taught artist from Mexico. Artists are Andy Warhol, the son of a coal miner from Slovakia. And artists are Ernie Barnes, an NFL player from the segregated south who became one of the most influential painters in America and started an art movement.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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“Beautiful Days: Stories” by Joyce Carol Oates, (Ecco, $27.99)

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“The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade Its Rivers” by Martin Doyle, (Norton, $26.95)

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“Down the River unto the Sea” by Walter Mosley, (Mulholland, $27)

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“The Neighborhood” by Mario Vargas Llosa, (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $27)

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Feb. 6: “Gone World” book launch. Tom Sweterlitsch, Greenfield resident and author of “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” releases his new novel, a mind-bending science fiction and mystery mashup. 8 p.m., Alphabet City, North Side. 412-435-1110, alphabetcity.org.

Sweterlitsch also appears Feb. 22 at 6:30 p.m., Riverstone Books, McCandless, 412-366-1001, riverstonebookstore.com

Feb. 9: Wayne Kurtz, author of “It’s All About the DECA,” the Pittsburgh native’s exploration of an extreme endurance race that is 24 miles of swimming, 1,120 miles of biking, and 262 miles running. 6:30 p.m. Riverstone Book, McCandless. 412-366-1001, riverstonebookstore.com.

Feb. 9: Book launch for “The Small Door of Your Death,” by Sheryl St. Germain, a poetry collection. 7 p .m., James Laughlin Music Hall, Chatham University, Point Breeze. 412-365-1100, chatham.edu.

Feb. 10: Sarah Tarkoff, author of “Sinless,” book signing. North Allegheny graduate and Wexford native talks about her debut YA novel. 2 p.m., Riverstone Books, McCandless, 412-366-1001, riverstonebookstore.com

Feb. 17: Bailey Publishing House writers workshop. Manuscript and writing consultations. $10. 1 p.m., Bailey Publishing House, 807 Chartiers Ave., McKees Rocks. baileypublishinghouse.com.

Feb. 17: Francisco Cantu, former U.S. Border Patrol agent and author of “The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border.” 3:30 p.m., Alphabet City, North Side. 412-435-1110, alphabetcity.org.

Feb. 18: Mo Willems, author and illustrator, in conversation with Jane Werner, executive director of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Talk sponsored by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures is for educators, librarians, and aspiring children’s authors. 4 p.m., Carnegie Library Lecture Hall, Oakland. Sold out. 412-622-8866, pittsburghlectures.org.

Feb. 26: Susan Faludi, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author of “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.” Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Ten Evenings series. . 7:30 p.m., Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland. $35-$15. 412-622-8866, pittsburghlectures.org.

All events free except where noted.