As part of the celebration of Black History Month, the Chargers organization is exploring the impact of former Bolts players throughout February. Up first is Ernie Barnes, well-known artist and former Chargers offensive lineman.
Born in Durham, North Carolina during the height of the Jim Crow era, Barnes is known as the first (and possibly only) American professional athlete to become a well-known and noted painter.
With his art displaying a unique style of movement, Barnes would share powerful messages and imagery that depicted many aspects of his life. he captured themes of his experiences he saw growing up through the Jim Crow era and segregated south. He would leave a lasting, powerful impact through his art.
After majoring in art at the North Carolina Central University on a football scholarship, Barnes was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1959 as a guard before joining the New York Titans in 1960.
Barnes would then move on to the Chargers in 1961 and spend two seasons with the Bolts.
He played in 13 total games (five starts) with the Bolts before moving on to the Broncos where he would spend two seasons. His professional football career would come to an end in 1965 after suffering a foot injury playing in the Canadian Football League.
Throughout his entire football career, and his whole life for that matter, Barnes' interest in art never waned. In fact, he consistently promoted his sketches and illustrating several articles for magazines as a player while also selling his art work.
But his big breakthrough came shortly after retirement when he hosted his first solo exhibition in November of 1966 that would be critically acclaimed. It helped launch his long career as a professional artist.
Barnes would go on to host a number of other successful and impactful exhibitions over the years as well as be commissioned for his work by many high-profile athletes, celebrities and by a diverse group of collectors and admirers across the country.
He was also big in pop culture, as Barnes' artwork has appeared on music album covers, television and movies. Most notably he created art for the show Good Times in the 1970's, including his iconic dance hall scene, The Sugar Shack, which was later used by Marvin Gaye as the cover for his album I Want You.
His early life experiences growing up Black in North Carolina massively influenced his life and artistic practice, as did his professional football career. A social justice focus was intertwined in many of his paintings, as he frequently integrated subtle forms of social commentary into his work.
It was captured most notably in his The Beauty of the Ghetto Exhibition that toured the country from 1972 to 1979.
"I am providing a pictorial background for an understanding into the aesthetics of Black America," Barnes said of this exhibition. "It is not a plea to people to continue to live there (in the ghetto) but for those who feel trapped, it is ... a challenge of how beautiful life can be."
A distinct aspect of Barnes' came from the people that would be in his paintings.
Many people in his art consistently had their eyes closed — a subtle, yet powerful, message that Barnes used as a way to represent how humans close off to one another that was inspired by an interaction with someone who resisted his point of view and explanation about his art.
"As a result of his comments and his attitude I began to see, observe, how blind we are to one another's humanity," Barnes said once in a television interview. "Blinded by a lot of things that have, perhaps, initiated feelings in that light. We don't see into the depths of our interconnection.
"The gifts, the strength and potential within other human beings. We stop at color quite often," Barnes continued. "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," Barnes added. "We look upon each other and decide immediately: This person is Black, so he must be… This person lives in poverty, so he must be…"
Barnes' art would continue to be important in society and in pop culture, as he would continue to display his life experiences through his art over the years. His work would remain notable throughout the rest of his life and posthumously.
The final public art exhibition Barnes would host came in October 2007 in New York City. The exhibit — A Tribute to Artist and NFL Alumni Ernie Barnes — was sponsored in part by the NFL.
Barnes passed away from myeloid leukemia in April 2009 in Los Angeles.
Whether it was growing up in North Carolina, playing professional football or watching important moments in history, Barnes depicted what he saw and his experiences to become one of the most important and influential Black artists of the 20th century.
His influence on the history of art and society continues to have an impact to this day. And in a time when it was much-needed, Barnes' paintings gave a visibility to many.
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