Good times, that is what I think about when I think of Ernie Barnes, who passed away Monday in California after a brief illness.
Ernie was from Durham, North Carolina, the same town my father was from.He was five years younger than my father, so as kids, they really did not know each other. Many years later, their paths crossed again in the 1960s in New York.
He helped my father work on the house that my parents lived in for over 40 years and where I grew up.
I knew Ernie all of my life. He was a gentle man. His work also thrilled me. The long, lean bodies of dancers and ball players. The unique vision of what our communities were like. The depth and breath of his work transcended race and culture. He was a master of capturing emotion and life on a canvas. All of the figures’ hopes, dreams and desires were laid out in front of one’s eyes on the canvasses his paint-brushes touched.
In 2003,I called Ernie and said to him, “My father is turning 70. I want to commission a piece for his birthday.” I could not afford an oil painting, but a pencil piece was more than enough. It now hangs in my mother’s living room. It fills up the room: a boy selling newspapers in front of the Amsterdam News. I went back to the well late last year and said to Ernie, “The Amsterdam News is turning 100 this year, and I want to commission a piece that would embody the past, present and future of the paper.”
He said he would think about it, but he really was not going in that direction right now; he had moved onto something new. About two months later, I heard from him again. He had changed his mind. He told me that he was ill and that this piece would probably be his last commission. The price was high, but when I went to my father, he said go for it. So we moved forward. Every time I talked to Ernie after that, I could tell that it was getting harder and harder for him. And in February when I had to tell him about the death of my father, it hit him like a ton of bricks. But he persevered.
Two months later, I got the e-mail that Ernie had died, the commission never finished. But even though he never finished the painting–he barely got to do any sketches–it doesn’t matter now. Because I know that he has done that painting in his head and that picture will also be in my mind forever. He was a gifted artist; his unique, figurative style will be copied for generations to come. He spoke to generations of artists. He spoke of and to the Black experience though his art. His painting “Sugar Shack” was on the cover on one of Marvin Gaye’s albums and graced the credits of TV’s “Good Times.” My heart goes out to his loved ones: his wife, Bernie; brother James of Durham, N.C.; sons Michael and Sean; and daughters Deidre, Erin and Paige. I know their grief all too well.
All I can say is:
Keepin’ your head above water,
Making a wave when you can.
Temporary lay offs.
Easy credit ripoffs.
Scratchin’ and surviving.
Hangin in a chow line
Ain’t we lucky we got ’em
We had good times with you Ernie, GOOD TIMES.
Ernie Barnes, 1938-2009