Quarles battled racism, a pandemic, and a breakneck pace to become a major artist of color in a predominantly white North Carolina scene.
As a father of three children under five, Darius Quarles knew that the last thing his wife, Chastity Oxendine, wanted to hear was that he’d quit his job.
But when he called her with the news in 2006, she stayed calm. She told him to pick up some diapers on the way home.
Why had Quarles quit his job as a receptionist at a dental office? Despite having no formal training nor artistic acclaim at the time, Quarles had decided to become a full-time painter.
The risk was extreme, but it was something he knew he had to do. In the 16 years that followed, Quarles became a leader in Durham’s artistic renaissance and a breakthrough artist of color in a predominantly white arts scene.
The Durham Arts Renaissance: The Early Days
Speaking to Quarles in his studio on East Chapel Street, it’s hard to believe that he started working as an artist nearly from scratch in his thirties. His vibrant paintings dotting the walls evoke a combination of street art, modernist painting, and an attention to color to rival the masters of the Black Mountain College.
“Now Durham is in a resurgence. [In the early 2000s] it was a ghost town,” he recalls. “I have memories of pushing my son in a stroller going to one of my first shows at what is now One City Center. I pushed him down the middle of the road for like two blocks before a car came.”
Quarles became a part of a small group of artists working in Durham. “I realized that everybody at the time was kind of a novice. We all were in a real learning experience and we all picked each other up.”
While the late aughts’ for Quarles and his cohort of early Durham artists—Jonathan Blackwell, Åndria Linn, Kim Wheaton, and Candy Carver—might sound like a meeting of the Salon des Refusés, in reality it was a lot less romantic.
There was no audience then in Durham for local painters and there was no money. Reminiscing about that history, Quarles chuckles. “My first couple of years when I started painting, I probably made $2,000-$2,500 in a year. I was like, ‘yo I’m on my way.’”
Since he didn’t have money to buy canvases, or even the materials to stretch his own canvases, Quarles had to be resourceful. One of the early paintings he sold at an art show in Cary was made from old linen sheets that his grandmother had mailed him stretched over the ladder from his kids’ old bunk bed.
But the sale of that painting became a turning point: It was the first time that he felt he was accepted as an artist. And he was also the only Black person in the room.
The Discrimination Black Artists Face
Quarles’ encounters with racism in the North Carolina art world were only surprising because he had hoped that by being an artist he could escape it.
“Racism is so alive. I can remember many, many shows that I would do, people would walk up and ask me, incredulously, ‘Did you paint this?’ I had to hold back the small aggression in me in those moments—to not say ‘Do you think I’m just standing here for fun?’ Or to point to my name on the booth: ‘How many white people do you think are called Darius Quarles?’”
More upsetting for Quarles was the exclusion of Black artists from juried shows organized by Durham’s premier arts purveyors. Quarles and other Black artists were producing work that was competitive with (or better than) some of the folks coming through with fine arts degrees and disposable income.
“They looked at me as not a worthy artist. They needed confirmation from someone else that it was ok for me to be a part of this.”
Thirteen years later, with 40-plus commissions a year, including multiple large scale murals all over North Carolina, Quarles doesn’t have time to work with them now anyway.
Finding His Signature Style
Despite the odds against him early on, Quarles believed that if he just worked and kept painting, he would make it. He drew inspiration from Picasso: “He is probably the blueprint for the hustle artist who does everything: murals, playbills….” Anything to get his art into the world and make a living.
As Quarles slowly developed a following, he kept experimenting in the studio at a breakneck pace. He painted 12 to 13 hours a day and got to the point where he could make 30 paintings in a month. Even now, he finishes roughly 200 paintings a year.
“I was trying to find my way to where I was unique. My art wasn’t gonna look like anybody else’s. I’ve always sketched since I was young—growing up on a 100-acre farm leaves a lot of time for doodling,” Quarles explains. “So I learned to just keep those lines, like a coloring book in reverse.”
Intrigued (or obsessed) by color theory and the relationships between complimentary colors, Quarles developed over the years a technically complex process for expressing individual tones and shading in his paintings. “Like if I wanted a blue dress to be the main focus [of a portrait], I would ‘split-compliment’ that color into at least five other colors that went with it.”
The effect is a vibrant surrealist painting with enough line work and detail to keep viewers occupied for days.
The Go-To Gallery in Durham
Quarles is willing to take risks for what he believes in, and he just seems to have the knack to make those risks work out. In part to gain that double-standard of legitimacy to sell his work but mostly to pull up other Durham artists along with him, Quarles became one of the founding members of the Pleiades Gallery. Located downtown, the gallery exclusively represented local artists.
The first few years were a good party, but the gallery wasn’t thriving financially. “We’d been there for six years and we only had $600 remaining in our bank account,” he says. When the two leads of the gallery suddenly quit shortly before the pandemic, it could’ve been a good time for Quarles to throw in the towel too.
As the most senior artist remaining of the 15 in the gallery, Quarles opened the door for anyone who wanted to leave. Six artists departed, but those who remained behind made the newly renamed 5 Points Gallery what it is today. “We believed,” he says. “We believed what that business model meant. We didn’t make any money but we believed in that idea.”
Between the pandemic and ensuing protests after the murder of George Floyd, the first few months of 5 Points were a bit rocky. “But then, the boards came off the windows and we’ve been kicking ass ever since.”
Now 5 Points is the go-to gallery in Durham for local artwork, not only for private collectors but also for local businesses and developments. And their bank balance is in the high five figures.
It’s Only Positive Octopi From Here
Looking to the future, Quarles is excited for the opportunity to use his art to empower local youth. He has a 60-foot mural of a “positive octopus” going up on Gregson and has enlisted the help of high school students from Durham Academy.
“I’m really excited to mold them in a way their art teacher probably won’t and just let them be free with a bit of guidance. I want them to see that they can create something that will be a part of the city, that the city will hopefully love forever.”
Quarles is also looking forward to working on more personal projects, namely an autobiographical series of paintings that he predicts may take five years to complete.
“I’m anxious to tell my family’s story on canvas. My story.”