Liberty Warehouse Mural, 2017
Artist: Darius Quarles
Location: 400 W Corporation Street
This forty-five-foot mural is located on the site of the original Liberty Warehouse, now reconstructed and dubbed Liberty Warehouse Apartments. Built in two sections in 1938 and 1948, Liberty Warehouse was the last remaining tobacco auction warehouse in Durham. Residents can recall the energy which emanated from this site every summer and fall where farmers would sell their freshly harvested tobacco. Auctioneers like "Speed" Riggs would animate large rooms while farmers awaited the news of their sales in the Liberty Cafe. Auctions were held in the building until 1984, but the Liberty Cafe continued to sell its hearty dishes. In 2006 the building was purchased by Greenfire Development, and within a couple of years, the company worked with city officials to designate the site a historic landmark. A year after its designation, however, a heavy spring rain caused a portion of the roof to collapse, and businesses inside were flooded. Greenfire declared they invested over $105,000 in repairs, but reports showed that such funds were not spent on roof repairs. Shortly after this came to light, the building was condemned. Anchor tenants like the Scrap Exchange and Liberty Arts, amongst others, were displaced, and the strip of Foster Street businesses that once connected downtown to the Geer Street district seized to exist. In May 2013, Greenfire petitioned the city council to remove the landmark designation and won. This enabled the sale of the building to East-West Partners of Chapel Hill, who demolished the former auction house to make way for apartments. East West Partners worked with community stakeholders to identify parts of the building that could be retained: the iconic Rigsbee Avenue wall on which Darius Quarles's mural now sits and the wall on which the Liberty Arts foundry relies. Secret gems hidden within the bones of the building —like the trompe l'oeil ("trick of the eye") installation by Georges Rousse— were left to the history books.
After responding to a call for proposals with a four-foot sketch on paper, Darius Quarles wowed East West Partners with his concept. Soon after, Quarles was awarded the project, and his composite imagining of Durham's history started to take shape.
In an article published by Clarion Content on June 15, 2017, publisher Aaron Mandel wrote:
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."
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 the history of the 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.
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.