The gentle world of art and the violent collisions of professional football seldom meet. But Ernie
Barnes brought them together in a legacy that both challenges and inspires.
Born July 15, 1938 in Durham during the height of the Jim Crow era, Barnes was a shy, sensitive
boy for whom art became an escape from being bullied.
A budding artist, Barnes transformed himself into a star athlete, garnering 26 athletic scholarship
offers by the time he graduated from Hillside High School in 1956. Recognizing the limitations
caused by segregation, he accepted an athletic scholarship to play football at North Carolina
Central University, where he majored in art.
His art instructors quickly recognized Barnes’ talent and continually encouraged him,
particularly urging him to paint from his experiences. Off-campus, some of those experiences
were far from encouraging, such as the class field trip to a recently-desegregated museum.
Responding to Barnes’ question about paintings by African-American artists, a docent replied
that there were none because African-Americans didn’t express themselves that way. The
comment inspired and motivated Barnes to continue pursuing his passion for art.
On the football field, Barnes quickly made a name for himself as an outstanding offensive
lineman. He was drafted in 1960 by the Baltimore Colts of the NFL. He subsequently played for
the New York Titans, the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos. He was posthumously
inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 2019.
Barnes continued his art during his NFL playing days, developing a style noted for its sense of
movement and elongation. He often took a sketch pad to the practice field and was known for
drawing at virtually any time or any place, which led teammates to bestow the nickname “Big
Rembrandt.” He retired from football in 1966 after his first successful exhibition at a New York
As Barnes continued to pursue his love of art, he concentrated on elements which were around
him and which he knew well. Many of his works incorporate elements reflecting Barnes’ roots
and love for North Carolina, including music, dance, porch ladies, pool halls, sandlot sports,
church, marching bands, and community.
Barnes’ unique style resonated with a wide variety of audiences. His work can be found on
album covers, in television shows and movies, and in prominent collections and museums. In
1999, he was awarded, “The University Award,” the highest honor by the UNC Board of
Governors. In 2018-19, the North Carolina Museum of History held a solo exhibition of his work
which drew more than 200,000 visitors.
Barnes always declined to publicly identify a favorite painting, simply saying he liked whatever
he was working on at the moment. However, “The Bench” is the only painting which Barnes
would never sell. Painted shortly after he was drafted by the Colts and invited to join the team on
the sidelines for the NFL championship game in 1959, the work is now in the permanent
collection of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
One of Barnes’ lesser-known pieces, “Balance of Power,” sends a strong message that dreams
are not limited by race and that anyone can achieve their dreams regardless of skin color. It also
points to why no character in a Barnes painting has their eyes open.
“We don’t see into the depths of our interconnection, the gifts, the strength and potential within
other human beings,” Barnes once told an interviewer. “We stop at color quite often. So one of
the things we have to be aware of is who we are in order to have the capacity to like others. But
when you cannot visualize the offerings of another human being you’re obviously not looking at
the human being with open eyes.” 1
Barnes passed away in 2009 from cancer at age 70.
— by Allyson Wainright