Great artists are frequently obsessive about things that seize them for reasons they hardly understand at first. For the better part of two decades Darius Quarles has felt that way about Durham, tobacco, and Liberty Warehouse. The only explanation he could offer me this month when we chatted at Pleiades, where he is one of the resident artists, was that his very first public art showing had been in the Scrap Exchange when it was still in the Liberty Warehouse complex.
Quarles was part of something called the Mongo Roadshow. Quarles talked to Ann Woodward, even then a key cog at the Scrap Exchange, and asked “What do I do?” She told him the show was about work made from scrap. Quarles found a scrap piece of wood, glued a big oak leaf from his neighborhood to it, and dribbled black and white paint on it, Jackson Pollock style. He still has the piece and says the oak leaf has shrunk to about the size of a quarter. He and Woodward have remained friends across the years.
He hung his work in the old ramshackle, tobacco warehouse on Foster Avenue (one of the Scrap Exchange’s many former homes). He was fascinated. His first interest was the building, at that time also home to Liberty Arts, before the roof caved in on them. There were relics, some might say junk, from another era strewn about, paintings on the walls, the sweet smells lingered in the air. Quarles, like so many with an interest in Durham’s history and our old building stock, found Open Durham. He began compiling stories and photos.
Some eleven years later Quarles heard that Liberty Warehouse apartments was looking for someone to paint a mural in their courtyard.
He submitted a proposal with a more than four foot sketch on paper in April of 2016. When his proposal won, he was thrilled, even though more than forty feet of his original conception was chopped. A year later when he began on his working his Durham mural at the nearly complete Liberty Warehouse apartments, Quarles realized he was going to lose some additional square footage to the doorways in the wall.
First it took nearly forty-five days to scrape the existing paint off of the wall, then he painted a coat of primer on the entire surface.
Quarles referred to himself in our interview as a “New Jack”.
He said, “[as a New Jack] I’m self-taught. I do things a million times.” [until I get it right] being the implication.
When it came to paint removal, Quarles admitted he was lucky to have a neighbor who was a professional painter and could make additional suggestions beyond what Quarles was getting from the Googlierge and YouTube. After scraping, but before priming, he washed the walls with bleach. He primed and began sketching his outline. At first he was arriving between 4.30am-5am with a projector to do the lettering and the outline.
The mural is a history of Durham told through tobacco. The first image that appears looking left to right or walking north to south is of someone tending a row of tobacco in a garden. Quarles noted that he had learned through his research that tobacco was grown in public and private spaces in Durham, including immediately along both Mangum and Main Streets.
Seen surveying this crop is the grandfatherly figure of Walker Stone, Sr. whose family owned the Liberty Warehouse building. The mural scene then shifts to the interior of the building on a tobacco auction day. We (the viewer) are looking over the heads and backs of the masses. Tobacco brought a lot of money to Durham.
Quarles doesn’t shy from that reality as the mural shifts to Slick, a legendary and perhaps apocryphal figure in the tobacco scene. Slick was the final seal of approval before Durham tobacco went to Greensboro, destined for brands like Newports, Mavericks, Old Gold, Kents, and Trues. In the mural he is accompanied by two rather shady looking characters. Quarles told me the one on the left is serving as a lookout.
Those who know some of the history of the run of roles played by Liberty Warehouse can understand the need for lookouts.
The mural ends with trucks being loaded with prime tobacco.
Quarles history with Durham goes back a piece. He was raised by his grandparents, Clyde and Adeline. Clyde was a World War II veteran with a 100 acre farm he worked in Louisa, Virginia, which is about 150 miles due north of here. Quarles described it as a one stop light town then. His grandfather was both aware of and nostalgic about Durham tobacco and the smell of Durham.
Farming taught Quarles lessons in hard work, literally and through the example of Clyde and Adeline. They had a five or six acre garden on the farm. Grandma Adeline pulled double duty running a beauty salon out of the house. Young Darius was tasked with selling produce from the family farm to hair salon customers.
He also did time raising pigs, walking behind a tractor picking up potatoes, and bagging groceries. He remembers tree swings and riding pigs with his cousin Andre. He still says, “I’m country as hell.”
But notes this is part of his drive, he has “seen both sides.” He has worked hard to make himself both as an artist and as a member of Durham’s art family. He credits Pleiades Gallery where he is now based for helping him to bring his work out of the house. For years he painted every day at home while he raised his kids.
He met Kim Wheaton, the co-director of Pleiades, while they were both park of Durham’s annual Art Walk. When she and Rene Leverty started Pleiades, Kim reached out to Quarles. He is still grateful. He refers to Wheaton and Leverty as his “art angels”.
Years later Interstate 64 went right through his grandparents property. But today, Grandma Adeline is still running the in-home beauty salon at ninety.
You can tell that Quarles comes from people who keep on keeping on. How else do you motivate to scrape paint for forty-five days?
He credits Durham. He says, “Durham molded me. I love it.”
He was dedicated. His grandparents finally got to see his work in person for the first time at the Grand Opening of Pleiades four years ago. It rained like crazy that day he recalls.
But it was a great day he tells me, because he finally had a tangible answer to his Grandma’s question, “What you doing down in Durham all this time?”
Grandparents are like that he said, they want to see proof, they want to see other people enjoy their grandson’s work. And they were able to.
Perhaps her suspicions had root causes.
He tells me the some of the story of the time between Louisa, Virginia and settling in Durham.
“I had been around the world five times before I got to Durham. I was in the military.”
Almost twenty years ago, Quarles found a very different Durham.
He was different, too. He says about himself, “I was a wild man when I got here.”
The getting here story involves a black car with tinted windows, Atlanta, the University of North Carolina, a speeding ticket, court dates in downtown, and a Henderson judged who sternly warned Quarles, “ain’t nobody famous in Vance County”.
Quarles took the judge’s tone to heart. He says, “he found himself in Durham”. He notes, his focus from when got here has improved by a hundred-fold. He is a family man, with a wife and kids. He dove into Durham in a positive way and found an accepting and positive culture in return. He says he “loves Durham and loves being a part of Durham,” as he and I reminiscence in Pleiades about the changes seen downtown. We both remember an era when there were more bail bondsmen than residents inside the downtown loop. Now, his kids have grown up here. And they love it.
His work was four pieces. He was painting on cardboard then and the space was more of an artist hangout than an official gallery. Quarles says seven people total came to see it, and he brought three of them. Newbies, this is what it was like in that era, when artists, well ahead of the curve, were sharing art in a nearly deserted downtown Durham.
Now while Quarles paints his mural people gather. Quarles tells me he has talked to tons and tons of people who have stopped by during the project. People will see him on the ladder, walk around the corner, and gasp, “I had no idea.”
There are twenty to thirty folks who stop by religiously according Quarles. Many of them are older. They share stories with an artist who they sense is as invested in Durham as they are. Many of these folks have lived in Durham their whole lives. Quarles reports they tell him they get such a “kick” out of strolling around a vibrant downtown Durham.
He in turn draws inspiration for them, feeling verified in who he has become as a family man and artist, alongside Durham. His two youngest have been helping with the Liberty painting.
The mural he is painting is a block from the Durham skate park. Quarles frequently interacts with the young skaters. The kids love the painting and the idea that he (a black man like many of them) is getting to do it.
Quarles concedes that he has had to answer the question of why the mural faces inward toward the apartments rather than outward toward the neighborhood repeatedly. It turns on the issue of the historic preservation of the exterior original wall of Liberty Warehouse, which couldn’t be painted in this way and be considered maintained “as is” by the standards set out.
Quarles personal reach out from the elderly strolling by to the kids rolling by has been to make clear that this courtyard and the mural are public space. The sense of community is magnified for Quarles with each and every person who comes by to talk while he is working.
So stop by. Say hey. Marvel at a town that supports public art.
Heck, we have so many murals that there is a biking mural tour.
See more of Quarles work at Pleiades Gallery at 109 East Chapel Hill Street.
Or on his website here.