Artist will capture Arizona town’s long railroad history with murals

September 6, 2013

By Dana Cole, Benson Sun News

BENSON, Arizona — Sitting cross-legged on a cushion, squinting up at an image on a wall at the Benson Visitor Center, an artist puts finishing touches on a mural. It’s a painting of an old train depot in Benson, the first phase in a series of eight walls Doug Quarles will be painting that depict the town’s historic connection with the railroad. It’s a history that got its start when Southern Pacific Railroad first rumbled through Benson in 1880, spawning the town that has since been named “Train Town USA” by Union Pacific in recognition of its support of the railroad industry.

Doug and Sharon Quarles, both artists, recently moved to Benson from Tucumcari, New Mexico, where Doug made a name for himself as an accomplished muralist, creating images throughout the community that highlight Route 66, along with the railroad that once ran through that town and the area’s western heritage. In the 10 years that he and Sharon lived in Tucumcari, Doug painted 40 murals to help revitalize the town of about 5,000, the same population as Benson.

“When the train stopped running through Tucumcari, it left the town depressed, so I had a lot of walls to work with,” Quarles joked. “When I was finished ‘painting up’ the town, I started looking for new projects.”

Quarles first learned of Benson when a friend told him about a group called “Benson Clean and Beautiful,” a committee of volunteers with a mission to beautify and revitalize their town through a range of projects. The committee, chaired by Lisa Hill, expressed an interest in launching historic murals after Hill saw Quarles’ work while visiting Lake Placid, Florida, where his murals were splashed all over town. Impressed by what she saw, Hill returned to Benson and pitched the mural idea to the committee and everyone was on board. The committee hopes to see the project take off once Quarles completes his work at the visitor center, with murals on buildings and businesses all over town.

“As soon as I heard about Benson’s mural project, I was interested,” said Quarles, whose murals at the visitor center are primarily funded through the Clean and Beautiful organization. “This committee has big plans for the project, so we’re hoping people in Benson like the murals well enough to throw their support behind it.”

With the visitor center serving as the project’s launching point, Quarles is using old photos provided by Bob Nilson, director of the city’s tourism department, for the historic renderings. Upon completing the train depot, Quarles will be painting different trains that have traveled through Benson, starting with the Southern Pacific in 1880, proceeding through the years until present day.

The murals will accompany recently mounted metal railroad logos now displayed on the parking lot walls of the visitor center, made possible through a $5,000 grant from Union Pacific Railroad. The logos are of trains that have traveled through Benson at different times, starting with the Southern Pacific which was part of the town’s history from 1880 until 1997, when it was purchased by Union Pacific. Santa Fe Railroad went from Benson, to Fairbank to Nogales from 1881 to 1898. The El Paso and Southwestern had a presence in Benson from 1901 to 1955.

And finally, there’s the Union Pacific Railroad, which travels through the town today. Currently under construction, are logos for the San Pedro and Southwestern, a short line located in Benson that travels south to Curtis. Along with railroad murals, future plans are to have murals scattered throughout Benson, all depicting the town’s history, with walking tours and brochures that tell Benson’s colorful story, Hill said.

The mural project won support from the Benson city council earlier in the summer when Hill presented the idea for council approval. In addition, the council approved a $1,500 request from Benson Clean and Beautiful to help pay for the visitor center’s murals, with most of the funds for the project provided by Clean and Beautiful.

Southeast Arizona Economic Development Group and its Executive Director George Scott also applaud the murals. “The Clean and Beautiful Committee has been around for a number of years now and has accomplished some really great projects for Benson,” said Scott. “I’m glad to see the committee members are getting organized again and working together on a new project that everyone is excited about. The murals are a great idea.”

Each panel takes about two days for Quarles to complete, with cooperative weather. Working from copies of old photographs, he creates a grid which he enlarges to the size of the wall he’s working on. With the grid as his guide, he starts out by sketching an image with charcoal and then paints an outline over the charcoal to protect the sketch from rain. From there, the mural takes on a life of its own as Quarles works his magic.

While Sharon Quarles is not involved with painting the murals, she works behind the scenes researching facts to ensure the artistic renderings are historically correct. “Once people hear about what we’re doing in Benson, I’m hoping the murals generate interest in other areas of Cochise County,” said Doug. “After we paint Benson up, we’ll look for mural projects in other communities. Our goal is to paint up the whole county!”

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