Arts District

Stephen Towns Exhibit Chronicles Rumination and Reckoning at The BMA

Baltimore artist examines slavery’s effect on modern society through a series of quilts that tell the story of Nat Turner.

By Lauren LaRocca | March 7, 2018, 9:00 am

Detail of the fiber art piece "Birth of a Nation," by Stephen Towns
Arts District

Stephen Towns Exhibit Chronicles Rumination and Reckoning at The BMA

Baltimore artist examines slavery’s effect on modern society through a series of quilts that tell the story of Nat Turner.

By Lauren LaRocca | March 7, 2018, 9:00 am

Detail of the fiber art piece "Birth of a Nation," by Stephen Towns

Last August, visual artist Stephen Towns traveled to his home state of South Carolina and joined millions of Americans when he stood in the path of totality and witnessed a total solar eclipse.

“It is something that is indescribable,” he tells a crowd gathered to see his exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art. “You know there is something bigger than you.”

The same celestial forces played prominently in the story of Nat Turner, who led a rebellion of slaves and free black people in 1831, a story that the Baltimore-based Towns had been studying and using as the impetus for his latest body of work, a series of quilts that explore how slavery has impacted modern life. After seeing a solar eclipse in his time, Turner, a minister and deeply spiritual man, believed it was a sign from God to move forward with his revolt against slave owners, which he did, though it would ultimately bring him to his death when he was convicted.

“And about this time I had a vision—and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened,” he writes in the book The Confessions of Nat Turner

The glowing moon and beaming sun against shimmering, starry skies play prominently throughout Towns’ pieces, which are are on exhibit in the solo show Rumination and a Reckoning at the BMA from March 7 through Sept. 2. The work is in the textile gallery space of the American wing of the museum and marks Towns’ first museum show.

Towns and internationally renowned artist Mark Bradford will be in conversation with BMA director Christopher Bedford on March 7 to discuss their work and chosen mediums. The event is free to the public and begins at 7 p.m.

Towns is trained as a painter but moved to fiber arts in 2014 when he made the large-scale quilt “Birth of Nation,” a Madonna and Child of sorts, depicting a black woman wet-nursing a white baby, set against the historical 13-star American flag.

Towns at his exhibit at the BMA

“I tried through painting, I tried through drawing, but it wasn’t working,” he says about starting the. When he turned to fiber arts to convey Turner’s story, “something about the materiality of the fabric” lent itself to the work. The self-taught seamstress says he learned a lot watching YouTube tutorials—which is fascinating, given the meticulous detail of the pieces that combine metallic thread, glass beads, buttons, tulle, and, in some cases, acrylic paint.

The quilts aren’t particularly large, averaging about 30 to 35 inches. Towns says that’s partly because he’s a creature of habit—and this size is similar to the canvases he once painted. He also says, “They’re like windows into that past time period.”

He brought to quilting his knowledge of, and interest in, sacred art, portraiture, and 19th-century photography.

In addition to his “Birth of a Nation” piece, seven smaller story quilts tell Turner’s story—from a child learning to read, through his work as a minister, and finally to his hanging as a martyr for enslaved people. Turner as prophet is depicted with a yellow, beaming sun around his head in some pieces, reminiscent of Towns’ older series of paintings, inspired by medieval altarpieces, that showed modern-day men and women with metallic golden halos. Two quilted portraits of Nat and Cherry Turner, believed to be his wife, complete the show.

Aside from those two portraits, the figures in Towns’ series are intentionally faceless, appearing as black cutouts, silhouettes. He wants them to be representative of all of us, he says.

He also chose to not show blatantly violent images, in part because he’s heard from friends that they’re tired of seeing films about slavery that contain graphic depictions of the old South. Instead, Towns focused on the positive frames of the story, and much is told abstractly through symbolism. A red scarf-like ribbon, for example, runs through several pieces, representing the blood and sacrifice of slaves. The heavens, too, serve as a metaphor, “a place beyond that is always there,” as Towns put it, “that you don’t always have the wherewithal to get to.”




Meet The Author
Lauren LaRocca is the arts and culture editor for Baltimore magazine, where she covers arts, entertainment, music, and culture.


You May Also Like


Arts District

Lauren Ruth Ward Returns Home a Rock Star

The up-and-coming, Baltimore-born singer performs at the Ottobar this Saturday.

Food & Drink

Review: Cat's Eye Pub

After more than 40 years, Cat’s Eye Pub keeps on rockin’ in Fells Point.

MaxSpace

Review: Book Club

Because seniors deserve a glossy rom-com, too.


Arts & Culture

Kings of the Road

Future Islands makes it big but sticks to its Baltimore roots.

MaxSpace

Review: Tully

Diablo Cody and Charlize Theron get real about motherhood.

Arts & Culture

Book Reviews: April 2017

The latest from Susan Weis-Bohlen and Sara Mansfield Taber.

Connect With Us

Most Read


We Ask Everyman Theatre Actors, And The Real-Life Characters They Portray, The Same Five Questions: Get to know the cast of The Book of Joseph, which premieres on May 11.

Ludlow Market Opening in Former Wine Market Space in Locust Point: Chef Christopher Audia shares details about the new neighborhood concept.

ODESZA Talks Headlining This Year's Preakness InfieldFest: The electronic duo takes the infield's new mega-stage with Post Malone and 21 Savage.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Resigns Amid Federal Charges: Darryl De Sousa is charged with misdemeanors for failure to file taxes.

City College Lacrosse Team Plays On While Mourning Captain’s Murder : Services for 17-year-old Ray Glasgow III will be held this weekend.