BENSON — Louisiana’s creative son, Doug Quarles, is no stranger to the locales of Benson. Not only has the man’s artwork been on display throughout the city after being hired to paint murals for the Benson Beautification project, but Quarles can be seen inside at least one mural that he has painted.
That mural borders the exterior of Quarles’ art gallery in Benson and features a highly-detailed replica of the Kartchner Caverns, a wonder that inspired Quarles from the moment he first set foot inside them after moving to Benson from Tucumcari, New Mexico.
When the Herald/Review recently interviewed Quarles, he told the story behind his choosing the Kartchner Caverns for inspiration.
Herald/Review: Can you tell the story of how you met one of the Kartchner sons?
Doug Quarles: Before I knew him he was coming over there, parking across the street, watching me paint that mural and finally one day I was sitting outside in front of the gallery. He came up to sit beside me.
He had been in the gallery before. He had walked around and looked, just because he was interested in art. He introduced himself and I was like oh my gawd you’re one of the Kartchners. He said yeah that’s my family. They wanted to keep it a secret there for so long and everything.
He wound up coming back and gave me his mom’s easel. She was a painter and I got it right here in the gallery. I cleaned it, washed it and I use it for displays. He gave me some old frames and stuff that he had.
I’ve seen some of his paintings that he did. Pretty darn good.
HR: When you met him was this before or after you painted the stuff inside the Kartchner Caverns visitor center?
DQ: I painted inside the visitor center there at the caverns after I had done the mural.
HR: When you met this family member you were doing the mural?
DQ: Yes. Actually I think it was probably after I’d finished is when he came by and seen me, ‘cause I guess he was just waiting kinda to see how good I did. He was a very nice man. He didn’t gloat or anything. I never would’ve guessed that he was a Kartchner. I never would’ve guessed he was a doctor, because he was so laid back. Now, I think he was retired by that time. He was just a normal person. There was nothing extraordinary. He certainly didn’t lead on that way at all.
The initial one that we started with was the Milky Way. Then I did a painting of the early horses. I think they were two-toe horses. They had split toes.
It’s a completely natural living cavern. There’s stuff that’s still growing in there. It’s amazing to see and how they built these sidewalks to walk and it’s completely handicap accessible too. There’s no steps. It’s all just solid ground. It just blew me away. It was so fascinating. Knowing about it and then experiencing that, I had to paint it. Put it on that wall. That’s like a big diamond in a rough that’s setting here in Benson. So, I had to advertise it.
HR: You say you had a vision in your head. Did you just see everything in your head or did you start with a postcard and then go back to your head?
DQ: I saw it, which was very inspiring. I don’t have a photographic memory, of course. I got one of their little pamphlet books of the thing because you can’t take pictures there at all. You can’t take your camera down there at all.
HR: What do you think about before you design a mural?
DQ: Getting it done. Well, it all depends. You think about what’s got to go onto it. You have to kind of know everything that’s going to go on it for the most part, so that you can lay it out right and everything.
HR: You say lay it out right. At that point do you use a scale or do you kind of just draft it up and then use a scale?
DQ: I’m gonna draw it up always, because it’s always a commission thing. You know somebody hired you to do a mural, so I measure the wall and then I go back and do a scale sketch of it. Usually just draw it out and you know if they wanted a western theme or whatever. I would draw it out and everything, show them and then work it out from there whether to go ahead or add this or take away that. I always do that. I don’t do surprises or anything. I always do at least some kind of sketch of it.
HR: With other folks do you rely on a postcard or some example or do you kind of brainstorm with them?
DQ: Usually brainstorm. A lot of times I get my wife and we’ll brainstorm ideas and stuff, think about it, a lot of times we’ll set up with a pencil and paper. Come up with this or that. Then if it’s like a particular cowboy or cows or horses. Something like that. Then sometimes I’ll get references. Reference material anywhere that I can find them.
So I have gotten people to pose for me certain ways. Not necessarily paint them on the wall, but sometimes just use their body and their hands and how they’re standing. Make them look Hispanic or Black or whatever or just paint them directly on there because that makes a lot of difference if you got local people represented on the wall.
HR: Do you ever look at what other folks have done for inspiration?
DQ: Oh yeah, we always, I think every artist does that, looks at other art and everything. See what they did and how they did it. Figure out what they did. Use that as an inspiration piece.
HR: What materials do you use in your paintings that might have been inspired by others?
DQ: All my murals are painted with that acrylic latex paint. It’s 100 percent acrylic and I think most all of them use that. Unless they’re spray painting it. Enamel, I think it’s a little bit more expensive. It tacks up and gets sticky too fast. Whereas acrylic dries faster, but you’re able to work over it real quick. It don’t get that tackiness to it like enamel does. So I like acrylic. It just makes more sense all the way around.
HR: Have you ever had to paint over anything because you’ve made a mistake?
DQ: Oh, we always make mistakes. That’s what I said to a student long ago. That’s what artists do. We put things down wrong and then we fix it.
HR: What inspired the hidden meanings in your mural paintings like the boy holding a wooden skateboard, and do you have a favorite?
DQ: A lot of times somebody will come by and say something and trigger an idea or they say won’t you put something, put an alien in there. A snake there or a crocodile they know of from Louisiana. They say put a crocodile in there. Alligator, actually. Put a shark swimming in the water tank or something. Sometimes you just do stuff like that. Sometimes I think of it and sometimes me and my wife are brainstorming and we’ll come up with something crazy like that. Anything and everything’s fair game.
I kind of like to do something that’s unusual. Like if you put, I said an alligator, in a tree line or something or an alien. That cattle drive one I got a zebra. I got a giraffe. An elephant and a rhino. They’re not real camouflage, but sometimes if you’re not careful, you’ll look right over them. Once you see them, you can see them easily.
HR: What has inspired you to put yourself in your paintings?
DQ: Well. I contribute that to Norman Rockwell. He did a lot of that with his paintings and stuff. When he needed people in the crowd, he’d put himself in there sometimes. I always thought that was neat. I always looked for it, if he was in the painting at all.
‘Course that famous one that he did with him sitting back at an easel. He’s looking at a mirror at himself and there’s a drawing of himself on the easel and then there’s some little sketches of him, where he did little studies of himself and everything. There were several portraits of him and so there are multiple choices there, and it was really just inspiring to see that from Norman Rockwell. He’s one of my first one’s that I admired most.
HR: Do you own any Norman Rockwell paintings?
DQ: No. If I did I wouldn’t tell you, because it’d be too valuable. I’ve got several books of his. I’ve got a bunch of calendars that people have given me over the years that feature Norman Rockwell and stuff.
HR: Because you like them or just because they inspire you?
DQ: I love looking at them and because I want to get that Norman Rockwell feeling doing something, Americana. I just thought, well, that’d be Norman Rockwell. Look at his stuff to get inspired, because he did so much of that, you know.
HR: What’s “Americana” to you with regards to your art?
DQ: Well, anything that’s truly American. You know, just painting people being people. You know, in a good way. Patriotism to me is a lot Americana. Any of your servicemen and women, your first responders. Police officers, firemen, border patrol people. Stuff like that is just American all the way to me.
HR: Have you ever put a border patrol agent in any of your paintings?
DQ: Not yet. I want to do some. I want to do a big patriotic one, where I can have all of the services on the wall. All the military services. All the branches of the military. Border patrol. Coast guard. If I can find a good judge, I might have to make one of them up.
HR: When you did the one painting where you added in a wooden board, you said you had somebody come up and talk to you. Can you speak to that?
DQ: When I first started, it was the first one I painted, the picture of the depot with the train parked in front of it and it showed the ramp at the end of the depot there. There was a board missing on that ramp in the photograph. It was an old black-and-white photograph. Johnny, the barber there, on the side street there by Circle K, he come across the street there, was talking to me. He talks to everybody. He was telling me when he was young, they would sneak into the old theater there across the street and after the movie there they would come over there and they’d play cowboys and Indians or whatever. They would hide underneath that ramp.
So that board that was missing in the photograph on that ramp, I put a little face with a couple little hand fingers over the boards there looking out of it.
He got a kick out of that, because he told me about it. That’s one of the things that I hid in that mural, was the little kid looking out of that.
HR: Now you said you brainstorm with your wife. Has she ever given you an idea and you say, “I didn’t think of that”?
DQ: Oh yeah. Yes. When we first started this back in Tucumcari doing murals. Me and her would brainstorm a lot. We would do a lot of stuff and everything. We were both kind of getting our heads wrapped around what to do with a mural. So we started doing stuff like that.