Arts & Culture

Cameo: Stephen Towns

The artist talks about his first solo museum show and genre-defying quilting work.

It might seem like Stephen Towns got his lucky break this year, landing a solo exhibition of story quilts at the Baltimore Museum of Art and being named a Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize finalist. But for those who know him, this recognition was a long time coming.

The 38-year-old has made art all his life, since his childhood growing up in Lincolnville, South Carolina, the youngest of 11 kids, and he’s been at it professionally for nearly 20 years, having earned a BFA in fine arts from the University of South Carolina. With a day job with MICA’s Office of Community Engagement and a studio inside Area 405, Towns is first and foremost a painter, but he may become best known for his fiber art.

It’s a new direction and one that’s gotten him a plethora of national attention, with a shoutout from The New York Times and props from internationally known artist Mark Bradford, who says Towns has created a new genre entirely, a hybrid of figurative painting and story quilts.

How has living in Baltimore informed your work?
I grew up in the South, and I would take field trips to plantations. Everything in Charleston is sort of beautiful and idyllic. Baltimore was a wakeup call, seeing these economic and racial disparities. In the South, everybody is nice, but behind people’s niceties, there’s a hidden thing that’s not hidden here in the North. I had always made stuff about history and explored it, but not as intensely as I explored it here. I wanted to know why things are the way they are. That’s why I go back to antebellum slavery and the psychology of that time period in my work.

Talk about the Catholic iconography in your work. I’m thinking mostly of the figures with gold-leaf halos who appear to be modern-day saints.
I think the halos are a response to my growing up a Jehovah’s Witness with the idea that God is above everything and humans are sinners. I adopted Catholic iconography to say that we all are beautiful people. I wanted to focus specifically on people of color, because it’s hard to tell someone they’re a terrible person when they have this iridescent golden halo behind them. . . . My teacher at the University of South Carolina was the person who introduced me to medieval and Byzantine art. We’d have to paint reproductions of some of these paintings, and that’s not something I would’ve been able to explore as a Jehovah’s Witness because all of that stuff is looked at as stuff you should not be participating in. So college was a way for me to explore that.

What of your religious upbringing remains with you?
I am continually searching for my own inner self goodness and inner beauty. I listen to a lot of spiritual books and podcasts, and I’ve gone to a lot of different churches. I’ve gone beyond the stage of finding sanctuary in a physical space and have found a sanctuary in my own artwork. It’s just that: seeing that me being human is good enough.

Tell me about the recurring butterflies in your work.
Butterflies represent spirituality and also the idea of metamorphosis and migration. People look at them as these fragile beings that you can break with your hands, but they’re resilient in their path and making their way to their destination. I mirrored that when I think of black Americans, who have survived being captured, the transatlantic slave trade, American slavery, and the Civil Rights movement. That’s a powerful lineage.

You’ve recently moved from painting to fiber art. How has it felt, process-wise, to be quilting?
I realized how challenging it is, how meticulous it is, how physically painful it is on your hands—your fingers being stuck with needles and bleeding. It really put me in the mind of labor. Paintings are a laborious process, but making quilts are an even more laborious process. So the idea of labor goes along with slavery, cotton, and fabric—all these ideas are layered into the work.

On that note, congrats on your solo show of story quilts at the BMA—that is huge!
Thank you.

Has it been overwhelming for you at all, getting so much attention?
It’s been good because I feel like I’ve been working really hard for the past 18 years, trying to make work and have people look at it and talk about it. Now I’ve finally been afforded that opportunity. It is a bit overwhelming—the emails and navigating the art world—but if I want to continue making the work, [this is] part of the process. . . . It’s also been really exciting to see what [BMA director] Christopher Bedford has done with the BMA and seeing some of the artists he’s brought in. It feels like a totally different space. Even the idea of bringing my body of work into the American wing was a really brave decision.

As opposed to the contemporary wing?
Yeah. I am around these structures and furniture and old paintings, and the reason all of this stuff exists is because of slavery. So this story [told through his exhibit Rumination and a Reckoning] creates context for everything else that’s shown in that space.

Your most recent pieces, some of which will be shown in the Sondheim Artscape finalist exhibit at the BMA, are the first to incorporate both painting and quilting. Are you working with a theme?
This series is based on my reading and listening to books about slave ships. The figures with the quilt attached to the painting are in the shape of a slave ship. In my head, some of these people have survived and some have not survived the Middle Passage. In each of the works, you see a [quilted] reflection in the water representative of how people’s futures were uncertain. There were rumors like the white men were going to eat them. People were being taken to a new place, having to learn a new language . . . things I hadn’t taken into consideration.

Is it important to you to bring these stories forth through your work? Does it matter whether viewers know the history?
I realize that some people just have to look at artwork and appreciate it as a pretty picture. For me as the artist, I know what they’re about. When my work is in the right context, then people understand it. Without that, people make up their own stories—which is why, I think, the work was taken down at Goucher [College in 2017]. The work [paintings depicting people with nooses around their necks] meant something else to somebody else . . . and it took on a whole different life. But in the end, there were conversations with students, staff, and faculty; there was an artist talk; and it was refreshing to hear people speak up. So really, the work did its work, being taken down in the space.

Weren’t those pieces later shown in a group exhibit of censored work at the Motor House?
Yeah, Leslie King Hammond wanted to put together different artists whose work has been censored, and I was a part of that.

That’s like a rite of passage, right?
Yes [laughs].