ABOUT ERNIE BARNES
(provided courtesy of
The Company of Art)
Ernest Eugene Barnes Jr. was born July 15, 1938, in a poor section ("the
bottom") of Durham, North Carolina. His father, Ernest Barnes Sr., worked as a
shipping clerk at Liggett Myers Tobacco Company and his mother, Fannie Mae Geer,
was employed as a domestic for Frank Fuller Jr., a wealthy Southern attorney who
would guide Ernie Barnes into the world of art.
On days when Fannie Mae allowed her son to accompany her to work, Fuller would
talk to young Ernest "about art and life. He would call me into his study and
allow me to look through his art books. I enjoyed this room of polished,
mahogany walls with leather chairs, shelves of leather-bound books and the sound
of classical music. He would tell me about the various schools of art, his
favorite painters, the museums he visited and other things my mind couldn't
quite comprehend at the age of seven," the artist recalls. So it was
particularly surprising when Fuller, as a member of the local school board,
voted against school desegregation. "He told my mother he didn't think 'the
Whites are ready.'"
By the time Ernie Barnes entered the first grade, he was familiar with the works
of such masters as Toulouse-Lautrec, Delacroix, Rubens, and Michelangelo. By the
time he entered junior high, he could appreciate, as well as decode, many of the
cherished masterpieces within the walls of museums -- although it would be a
half dozen more years before he was allowed entrance because of his race.
Unusual for a lower-middle class child growing up in the segregated South of the
1940s, Ernie Barnes' mother believed in education and exposure to the arts. "She
tried to get me to do all the things that would make me a culturally enriched
person. She pushed me in the direction of art and music. I took lessons in tap
dancing, saxophone, trombone, violin and piano," he says, noting with a laugh
that he mastered none of them. Early on, however, he showed a talent for art. "I
was never in class. I was always off somewhere decorating stuff."
Overweight and extremely introverted, Ernie Barnes was a target for ridicule
from the time he started the first grade through his junior year in high school,
continually seeking refuge in his sketchbooks.
"They hated me," he says of his classmates. "My mother escorted me to school ten
times before I could accept the fact that I had to stay there. I couldn't
conform easily to the athletic ideal and was made to feel inadequate. I wasn't
able to fight, to run fast, nor was I picked for rough games. I was introverted
and shy. If there was a day that I did not come home in tears because of a
fight, it could be attributed to sickness, the weekend, or it was rained out. I
was beaten so severely, my mother requested that I be allowed to leave school
fifteen minutes before the other kids, and permission was granted.
"When I was at home and drawing, I was happy. My senses addressed themselves
naturally to the discovery of what I could make happen on paper. It was so easy.
From the shrouded mists of my sensitivity, I made friends with lines, allowing
them to flow into things belonging to my immediate environment; the trees,
clouds, birds and people. In school, nobody laughed and made fun of me when I
was drawing. They just watched in silent awe."
At the age of 13 came the rude awakening that the only way of getting a
girlfriend was by exerting his prowess through sports. Even then, he says, "the
athlete was respected as the finest embodiment of one's African heritage. There
were those convinced that the only way to heaven was with a football or
basketball. Most definitely a bat. On any given day, the number one question on
the block was, 'Hey, man. What did the Mays do today?' or 'Did you see the way
the brother was running?' Any Black male worth giving the time of day owed it to
his race to at least make an attempt to hit 'The Gipper' as soon as he touched
the ball." Read the full
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