Four years ago, a vision came to Baltimore painter Stephen Towns for a brand new piece. He saw a black woman, a slave, feeding a white baby, against the backdrop of an American flag.
But Towns, who had been painting a series of portraits based on American history, found that medium wasn’t the best option.
“I had tried through painting, I had tried through drawing, I had tried through materials to try to create a powerful and effective work, but it just wasn’t working,” he said Tuesday, standing inside the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Berman Textile Gallery. “And so that’s when I turned to quilting, because my mother was a sewer, my family members were sewers, so I had to pick up this very maternal sort of medium to show this work and to create this narrative.”
That piece, the seven and a half-foot tall “Birth of a Nation,” now stands as the centerpiece of “Rumination and a Reckoning,” Towns’ mystical, solemn 10-piece series of quilts that he has since crafted from 2014 through early this year. The show, which opens today, fills the BMA’s first-floor gallery room devoted to textile artwork. It marks Towns’ first-ever museum exhibition, and has already received some national press, with more expected.
“Having worked for like 20 years and having this finally happen, it all just feels surreal,” Towns said.
Towns impressively picked up quilting in DIY fashion, learning much of his craft from YouTube tutorials.
“While Stephen is drawing on techniques of quilting in a very concerted way, and thinking about that history, his work is not about quilting,” said the BMA’s assistant curator of contemporary art, Cecilia Wichmann, “but about the narration of history and really about the way portraits construct the stories of human lives that then become the core material for shaping history.”
“Birth of a Nation,” a tribute to the artist’s late sister, is set aside from the rest of the work in “Rumination and a Reckoning.” The nine other quilts tell of Nat Turner, an enslaved black preacher who led a historic 1831 slave uprising in Southampton County, Virginia. Turner and others killed between 55 and 65 people, most of them white. In the aftermath, 56 African Americans were executed, and hundreds more were killed by angry mobs.
A South Carolina native who moved to Baltimore in 2010, Towns became fascinated with the lore of Turner as he dove into America’s relationship with slavery, a dive that included readings of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Solomon Northup’s “12 Years a Slave” and Harriet Ann Jacobs’ “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.”
Turner’s story made him “uncomfortable,” he said, akin to how it felt reading violent scenes from the Old Testament when he was younger.
“I wanted to tell that story about Nat Turner’s rebellion, about violence, and how we talk about violence, how we narrate violence, and even how we talk about whose violence is justifiable,” he said.
Viewers will notice the celestial imagery and glow of Towns’ quilts, made with glass beads, metallic threading and tulle, in addition to fabric. (A number of them were already on display in fall of 2016 at his show “Take Me Away to the Stars,” held at Galerie Myrtis in Old Goucher, which we previewed here.)
The artist toured the Southampton County plantation where it all unfolded, and heard from locals about the legend of Nat Turner. He said the celestial elements in his quilts help convey the “magic and mystery of Turner’s life” that he heard and read about.
As legend has it, Turner was one of the few slaves who learned how to read as a child. (Some say it was his slavemaster who taught him by reading from the Bible, according to Towns). One quilt, “Special Child,” depicts a young Turner reading to his grandmother, with twinkling stars and a crescent moon overhead. Another, “The Baptism of Ethelred T. Brantley,” shows him baptizing a white person in a river, an act that would have been controversial in pre-abolition society. Two others, “Black Sun” and “The Prophet,” display an adult Turner with red ribbon flowing from his arms–the “blood and sacrifice of the slaves,” Towns shared.
The backdrops of the latter three show a sun being blocked out by the moon. Turner is said to have believed a total solar eclipse in February 1831 was a sign from God that he must lead a slave rebellion. A subsequent atmospheric phenomenon in August 1831, which left the sun bluish-green, affirmed that plan, Towns said.
Last August, 186 years after Turner’s uprising, Towns watched the total solar eclipse while visiting his home state. Based on that experience, he said he “understood” Turner’s inkling of a divine message: “We all knew it was gonna happen, but when you actually experience it, it’s like, ‘Something isn’t right here, there’s something bigger than me.’”
Despite depicting a brutally violent snapshot of pre-Civil War America in his quilts, Towns said he wanted to highlight other circumstances of these scenes than gore, which he argues can distract or turn people off from learning about the actual events. This is evident in “March to Jerusalem,” in which Towns shows a militia arriving to end the rebellion, with torch-wielding slaves at the forefront.
Rather than display the bloody confrontation that ensued, “I knew I just wanted to create this image of fire and heat balancing coolness,” he said. “It’s like framing these faceless figures against this barrage of militia men.”
BMA director Chris Bedford, who will engage with Towns at an artist’s talk at the museum tonight, said in an emailed statement that he “was immediately captivated by [Towns]’ quilts” during a studio tour last fall with Miami-based art collector Mera Rubell. In particular, he noted Towns’ “capacity to use ‘craft’ techniques to expand our definition of history painting to include textiles” and “his bold, sensitive inquiries into often painful African American histories.
“To me the quilts are moving testimonials to figures and events in history that continue to teach and cannot be permitted to slip from our collective consciousness,” Bedford said.
On Tuesday, Towns expounded on the significance of Turner’s slave rebellion to modern America.
“People always talk about how divided our country is and how it feels more divided than it ever was,” he said of the current social climate. “But for me, I don’t feel like we’re any more divided. It’s just people are saying, ‘This is what’s happening to me.’ With Turner’s story, Turner is telling us, ‘This is what’s happening to us, and we have to change it.’”
“Stephen Towns: Rumination and a Reckoning,” runs from today through Sept. 2, 2018, at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Berman Textile Gallery.