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Ernie Barnes, AFL lineman for Titans; launched 2d career as artist; at 70

Ernie Barnes's work often showed the strain of competing bodies in the curves and exertions of the figures. His most famous painting, ''Sugar Shack,'' was on Marvin Gaye's album ''I Want You'' Ernie Barnes's work often showed the strain of competing bodies in the curves and exertions of the figures. His most famous painting, ''Sugar Shack,'' was on Marvin Gaye's album ''I Want You'' (©1990 Ernie Barnes)
By Bruce Weber
New York Times / May 1, 2009
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NEW YORK - Ernie Barnes, whose drawings and paintings of athletes, dancers, and other figures in motion reflected his first career as a professional football player, died Monday in Los Angeles. He was 70.

The cause was complications of a blood disorder, his personal assistant, Luz Rodriguez, said.

Mr. Barnes was an offensive lineman in the old American Football League, playing four seasons in the 1960s for the New York Titans, San Diego Chargers, and Denver Broncos. He would often say later that even during his playing days, his heart was more in the painting and sketching he had been doing since he was a child.

But the athletic experience clearly influenced his painterly vision. His work, which mostly depicts black people - Mr. Barnes was black - is kinetic and often vividly bright, though even in his black-and-white pencil drawings the strain of competing bodies is evident in the curves, stretches, and muscular exertions of the figures.

While his most famous painting, "Sugar Shack," a jubilant dancing scene that appeared on the cover of Marvin Gaye's album "I Want You" and was shown during the closing credits of the television situation comedy "Good Times," is not literally sports-related, it is nonetheless a characteristic work, with its vibrant tumble of bodies.

"One day on the playing field I looked up and the sun was breaking through the clouds, hitting the unmuddied areas on the uniforms, and I said, 'That's beautiful!' " he wrote on a website devoted to his work, sundaysgladiators.com. "I knew then that it was all over being a player. I was more interested in art. So I traded my cleats for canvas, my bruises for brushes, and put all the violence and power I'd felt on the field into my paintings."

Ernest Eugene Barnes Jr. was born in Durham, N.C. His father was a tobacco company clerk, and his mother, the former Fanny Mae Geer, ran the household for a prominent lawyer in whose home library young Ernest discovered paintings by the old masters.

Overweight and shy as a child, he was encouraged to build his body by a junior high school teacher who caught him drawing in a notebook as he hid from bullies. By the time he graduated from high school, he had received an athletic scholarship to North Carolina College of Durham, now North Carolina Central University.

Drafted out of college by the Washington Redskins of the National Football League and traded to the Baltimore Colts, who cut him at the end of training camp, he was picked up by the Titans (they became the Jets in 1963) of the NFL's fledgling rival, the American Football League. In 1965, he played a final professional season in Canada. Afterward he approached Barron Hilton, then a part owner of the San Diego Chargers, with a proposal that he become the official artist of the AFL. Hilton introduced him to the owner of the Jets, Sonny Werblin, who staked him to a painting career, paying him a year's salary to get him started.

Mr. Barnes, whose first two marriages ended in divorce, leaves his wife, Bernie; a brother, James of Durham; two sons, Michael of Virginia Beach, Va., and Sean of Washington; and three daughters, Deidre of Durham and Erin and Paige, both of Los Angeles.

Mr. Barnes created five official posters for the 1984 summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Over the years he completed commissions for clients including the National Basketball Association, Seton Hall University, Sylvester Stallone, and Kanye West. His work has been purchased by celebrity collectors including Charlton Heston, Mary Tyler Moore, Alex Haley, Burt Reynolds, and Dr. Jerry Buss, the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers.

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