The Bottom To The Top: The Story Of Ernie Barnes

Jun 22, 2018

He was raised in “the bottoms” section of Durham, but Ernie Barnes would leave the Triangle to become one of the most recognizable black artists of the time. Anyone who has ever seen the opening credits of the sitcom “Good Times,” has seen the art of Ernie Barnes.

During his childhood in Durham, he used to hide behind the bleachers at school and sketch. It was football, not art that would be Barnes’ first ticket to success. His football scholarship at North Carolina

"Porch Ladies" by Ernie Barnes. The Durham native was a shy child and used to hide beneath the bleachers and sketch.
Credit Courtesy of the estate of Ernie Barnes

College at Durham (later named North Carolina Central University) lead to being drafted by the Baltimore Colts.

After a career in the NFL, Barnes set his sights on his true love – art. Luz Rodriguez worked with Ernie Barnes for over two decades. In celebration of what would have been his 80th birthday, Rodriguez has planned a series of events. She joins host Frank Stasio to talk about Barnes’ life, art and love for Durham.

Deidre “DD” Barnes is the eldest daughter of the painter. She joins the conversation to talk about her father’s legacy and growing up with a man she says was happiest when he was painting. The North Carolina Museum of History will showcase unpublished Ernie Barnes paintings and artifacts from his life in the exhibit “The North Carolina Roots of Artist Ernie Barnes” which will run June 29 through March 3 in Raleigh. North Carolina Central University will celebrate his 80th birthday Sunday, July 15 at 3 p.m. at the B.N. Duke Auditorium.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

DD Barnes on growing up in a house with a famous painter:

We had paintings everywhere, paint everywhere. He used, instead of a regular artist palette when we were younger, he used the plates that were in the kitchen. Whatever he found to put paint on.

"High Aspirations" is a well known Ernie Barnes painting. Barnes was unable to dribble a ball as a boy. He went on to get a full athletic scholarship in football to what would become North Carolina Central University.
Credit Courtesy of the estate of Ernie Barnes

Luz Rodriguez on how Ernie Barnes went from being bullied to a star athlete:

He liked to draw, but even he admits that he was very unathletic and shy. And he was bullied so he would hide from the other students. The story goes that there was a masonry teacher in junior high, Tommy Tucker, who found him drawing in a notebook and he happened to be the bodybuilding coach and taught him about weightlifting. And then Ernie became very good at it and confident. And he became a star athlete in high school.

Luz Rodriguez on how the painting “Sugar Shack” became the cover of a Marvin Gaye album:

Marvin Gaye and Ernie Barnes used to be basketball buddies. They would play pickup games in the park. And Ernie showed him the painting and Marvin of course went crazy over it and asked to borrow it. Ernie said no and they argued and finally Marvin got his way … About a week later he gets a call from Motown saying that they wanted to use it on the album cover. And Ernie just wanted his painting back and said he wasn’t an album cover artist. And then he said that the money got too good, and so he said yes.

"The Sugar Shack" was made famous by the sitcom "Good Times" and a Marvin Gaye album cover. This painting was based on a party Ernie Barnes sneaked into at the Durham Armory when he was teenager.
Credit Courtesy of the estate of Ernie Barnes

Luz Rodriguez on the unpublished work on display in the exhibit:

Well there’s a lot of unpublished work that you’re going to see. A lot of the times his work literally went from the easel into someone’s house, so unless they’ve been exposed, not many people have seen them. Of the 39 paintings in the exhibition, only five of them have been publicly seen.

DD Barnes on how she believes her father would want to be remembered:

I think he would want to be remembered basically as a great artist because it was so much a part of him. Basically every fiber of his being was art.