MTYT: Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery

by Seemi Aziz, University of Arizona, Tucson, and Celeste Trimble, St. Martin’s University, Lacey, WA

This month we look at representation around abilities and disabilities in children’s picturebooks. Last week we discussed The Proudest Blue. This week, we take on Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery.

Bibliographic information for Between the Lines is listed at the bottom of post

SEEMI: This book deals with further strengths of a renowned athlete. Ernie Barnes was an African American in the 1940 living in the segregated southern state of N. Carolina. His experiences leading to fame as an artist are outlined in this beautifully illustrated book. He loved to draw and paint what he saw, but he did not know how to make money off of creating art. While he played football and was successful in it, his heart was in art.

Ernie Barnes was a significant artist of his time, known for his style of elongation and movement. His work has impacted a generation of painters and illustrators and can be found in museums and collections, such as the African American Museum in Philadelphia and the California African American Museum.

I was moved and loved this book as a source of inspiration to follow your heart and the impact of arts and art teachers on the youth. I further appreciated the book after reading articles about Ernie’s impact. This was such a story not known to many. The first of these articles appeared in a June 2019 article from the Guardian UK. It speaks to Ernie’s legacy yet his noticeable absence in art history textbooks. The second is a September 2019 article written by noted basketball player Kareen Abdul-Jabbar. He discusses Barnes’ authentic art as related to a California African American Museum exhibit that concluded in September 2019.

Bryan Collier illustrated this book brilliantly in collage and has said in nccil.org, “Collage is more than just an art style. Collage is all about bringing different elements together. Once you form a sensibility about connection, how different elements relate to each other, you deepen your understanding of yourself and others.” I appreciate his comment as I work in collage myself as well.

CELESTE: I’m glad you bring up the notion of collage as a bringing together of different elements, as that is a striking theme in this book: we are never just one thing. One example of this is in Collier’s comment in the book’s back matter. Another example comes from his acceptance speech for the Orbis Pictus Award, noting that he became familiar with the work of Ernie Barnes through the image of Ernie’s painting, “Sugar Shack,” in the opening credits of the television show, “Good Times.” There is an artificial dividing line between different art forms, with painting and other forms of art that is dignified by museum purchase and display being held higher than television writing/directing/acting. Collier’s introduction to Ernie Barnes and the subsequent inspiration of himself and many other artists through a television sit-com announces loudly how false this division is. Similarly, the division between those who have talents and abilities in the arts and those who have talents and abilities in sports is equally artificial and harmful. Barnes’ story is radical in that it proclaims that a child, a Black boy specifically, can be an artist and a football player, sanctioned by the NFL itself as a team artist. This is a powerful story that strips away the divisions and categories that are placed on us and that we place upon ourselves.

SEEMI: Absolutely agree with Ernie’s contribution and work being radical and his excellence in both forms of art is phenomenal. I had the privilege to meet Bryan for a celebratory dinner after the ceremony, the Orbis Pictus committee got together with most of the authors and illustrators of 2018 OP winners. I found him thoughtful and humble and really appreciated his take on Ernie’s life all the more.

[Editor Note: Between the Lines is also reviewed in Volume 11, Issue 4 of WOW Review.]

Title: Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery
Author: Sandra Neil Wallace
Illustrator: Bryan Collier
ISBN: 9781481443876
Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books
PubDate: September 10, 2019

Reviews and Awards
Booklist starred, 01/01/18, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, 02/01/18, Horn Book Guide, 11/01/18, Kirkus Reviews starred, 12/15/17, Library Journal – web only, 02/02/18, Publishers Weekly starred, 11/20/17, School Library Journal starred, 01/01/18 and last but not the least Orbis Pictus Winner 2018 award.

Throughout January 2020, Seemi and Celeste give their take on books focused on youth taking action. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!

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