Good Times for Ernie Barnes of Durham

Barnes with his painting “In Remembrance.” Image from the Barnes Family Trust.On July 15, 1938, football player, painter and all around Renaissance man Ernie Barnes was born in Durham.

As a child, Barnes began to draw as an antidote to bullying. He later developed physical discipline and became captain of Durham’s then segregated Hillside High football team, receiving an athletic scholarship to what’s now N.C. Central University in 1956.

At Central Barnes studied art, but he left in 1959 before graduating to play professional football for six years.

Nicknamed “Big Rembrandt,” Barnes kept a sketchbook with him on the field and turned the physical and emotional violence of the game into paintings. He also became known for depictions of people, often African Americans, engaged in everyday life but with their eyes symbolically closed.

His work is evocative and tangible, fusing elongated sculptural forms of the human body with vibrant color, movement and emotional intensity.

Barnes’s paintings have appeared on the sitcom “Good Times” as the work of the show’s character JJ.  “The Sugar Shack”, a well-known painting, appeared in the show’s credits and later became the cover image for Marvin Gaye’s album “I Want You.”

In addition to his work as a painter and athlete, Barnes authored books, co-created a TV special, and appeared in a number television programs and films, including episodes of “Good Times”.

He died in Los Angeles in 2009.

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