Top black painter exhibits in Oakland

Nation's pre-eminent creator of figurative work, Ernie Barnes, expected to draw many art lovers

By Chauncey Bailey

ERNIE BARNES is the Picasso of the black art world.

His creations are just as likely to appear in the home of a millionaire professional athlete as an inner-city barber shop.

"Black America has marveled at his ability to illustrate the toughness and tenderness of ghetto life and a wide range of other wonderful images," said Adrienne Warren, a consultant at Samuel's Gallery in Oakland, one of the top black-owned galleries in the country.

"I want to capture the tension generated by conflict and paradox," said Barnes, the nation's pre-eminent

African-American figurative painter. He will be in Oakland on Thursday to prepare for a presentation of "Neo-mannerist" work this weekend at Samuel's Gallery in Jack London Square, and his "Masterworks in the Community" exhibition is expected to attract many art lovers.

Prints and posters will also be available Saturday and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. at the gallery, located at 70 Franklin St.

His paintings were featured during four television seasons of the 1970s hit sitcom "Good Times."

His piece titled "Sugar Shack" was on the cover of Marvin Gaye's classic album "I Want You" in 1976.

"I got the idea for Sugar Shack by reflecting on my childhood and not being able to go to a dance I wanted to go to when I was 11," he said.

Growing up in a segregated Durham, N.C., turned out to be a blessing. "People encouraged talented black kids," said Barnes, who entered North Carolina Central University on an athletic scholarship and majored in fine arts.

Baketball Hall of Fame

His work "A Dream Unfolds" was commissioned by the NBA to mark the league's 50th anniversary and the painting remains on display at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Barnes was commissioned as the official artist for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and last year, Lakers owner Jerry Buss commissioned Barnes to do a painting of boxer Oscar De La Hoya, which was unveiled during a charity dinner.

However, Barnes, 64, said he's not an elitist and his work is for everyone to enjoy and buy.

"But right now, I only go through private dealers rather than galleries." He would rather not discuss the "business side" of his world. "I just try to paint the best I can and the business part comes later."

"I paint when ideas come and I see a vision of what I want from our common humanity."

Too many black artist, however, Barnes said, still cannot get into white-owned galleries, "because the owners think they have to (recognize) black culture and they might not want to do that ... but fortunately we have places like Samuel's here in Oakland so artists can get exposure."
Work featured on

Some of his works take a year to complete.

Barnes does not shy away from social commentary. His work called "In Remembrance" gives the homeless' perspective of the Sept. 11 tragedy.

His "visual response" to the Sept. 11 day of terror was unveiled last year at the Seattle Art Museum. This year, the painting was purchased by Philadelphia Park owner Robert Green on behalf of the city of Philadelphia.

Fined once for 'drawing'

Barnes played professional football for San Diego and Denver until 1965 and was fined once during a team meeting for "drawing." He would keep those private sketches and his dream to draw professionally -- despite his father's doubts he could make a living doing art work.

Barnes' father was a shipping clerk and his mother a domestic for a wealthy attorney who would encourage the young artist to dream and draw.

However, in college, Barnes was told by a museum docent that black people didn't express themselves as artists. North Carolina museums had just opened its doors to blacks.

Pride and a palette

In 1966, with pride, purpose and a palette, Barnes went into art full-time with the help of New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin who helped showcase the artwork in a New York City gallery.

Three years later, Charlton Heston hosted a solo exhibition that featured Barnes in Los Angeles, and during the 1970s, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson welcomed Barnes to city galleries to expose young blacks to art to build self-esteem.

Three decades later, Barnes is releasing “Motivational Sports Posters.”

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