Artist Stephen Towns vividly remembers the days after Freddie Gray died. He watched as Baltimore residents, many of them young black men, set fire to buildings, looted and tore apart areas of the city.
He also felt the world zero-in on his home city of 10 years. The images of young people rioting in Mondawmin before his eyes and on the TV screen inspired him. “I had been talking to them about the history of slavery and what it really meant,” Towns said. Between the TV portrayals of the violence and the youth fueling it with their anger, “there was just very little concept out there about history and about uprisings.”
He found a historical comparison for the destruction in Nat Turner, the focal point of his newest exhibition, “Take Me Away to the Stars,” showing at Galerie Myrtis in the Old Goucher neighborhood. For those who didn’t learn about Turner in history class and haven’t yet seen “Birth of a Nation,” he was the leader of a violent slave uprising in 1831 in Southampton County, Va. A preacher, he led others to kill some five-dozen people in a religiously inspired act of retribution against slave owners.
With Turner’s likeness and those of people he envisioned as the rebel slave’s peers, Towns has crafted a series of 23 paintings and quilts. They incorporate visuals of celestial events, magic, nature and, perhaps most importantly, power dynamics, all of which are believed to have inspired Turner’s insurrection. It is equal parts fantastical and biographical, with what factual details Towns has gathered about Turner’s life.
The show has four sections: “Find Me a Constellation,” a series of portraits of slave children; “Joy Cometh in the Morning,” portraits depicting Turner and others holding their own golden nooses in their hands; “Story Quilts” that offer a more biographical look at Turner’s life (and a glimpse at a craft that Towns impressively learned in the last couple years); and “Black Magic,” paintings that focus on the influence of religion in his rebellion.
Each part has its own way of depicting the cruel power system and psychology of slavery through Turner and his peers. “Find Me a Constellation” concentrates on the innocence of daydreaming slave children, with each painting set against a glimmering backdrop of gold metal leaf and painted in acrylic with fabric stitched on top. The ones in “Joy Cometh in the Morning,” are more directly violent. This is where we first see Turner (shown above, titled “What Profit is There in My Blood?”), who stares his audience straight in the eyes while holding a golden noose tied around his own neck.
“They each have their life in their own hands,” said Towns of the latter set. “There’s power, and there’s a very violent act of death.”
The third collection of paintings, “Black Magic,” alludes to religion’s influence on Turner by showing him and his wife performing magic tricks. “For me, religion is magical thinking,” said Towns. “If you want to create change, you create a god, and you’re sort of using magic by relying on the god.”
“Story Quilts” is the fourth section. It is the most biographical, and the only one created solely from fabric rather than a mix of paint and cloth. The quilts tell what we know about Turner’s life: Him sitting with his grandmother as a child; learning to read, a rare skill for blacks at the time; preaching to other slaves while reading the Bible; and conspiring with others in the woods before the insurrection, among other snapshots. Each one is hand- and seam-stitched, skills that Towns picked up through YouTube tutorials and careful practice.
The odd quilt out in the collection is “Birth of a Nation,” a five-by-seven-foot work that Towns made in 2014, which he said, “grounds the whole exhibition.” It shows a black wet nurse holding a white baby and standing in front of a colonial American flag. It offers a powerful message about corruption: Towns imagines the baby “is eventually going to own her and dictate what her life will be.”
Nearly all of the works contain celestial imagery. Some them fixate on the solar eclipse that Turner interpreted as a sign from God that he should carry out the insurrection. To draw another local tie, the world learned of this after Virginia lawyer Thomas Gray met with Turner before he was executed, and then published his “Confessions” in Baltimore that same year.
Towns modeled the likeness of Nat Turner in all of the paintings and quilts after his co-worker at Maryland Institute College of Art, where Towns works full-time in the Office of Community Engagement. The artist found him to be a good fit due to his muscular, stocky build, some of the infamous slave’s only known physical attributes.
Beyond the focus on Turner, Towns’ paintings and quilts offer recurring details that speak to the slow buildup of anger for black Americans victimized by slavery. In many, the viewer will notice a motif of whiteness – a tiny hand on the shoulder or a patch of fabric – that Towns imagined hovered over the subjects in their daily lives. For the children, “their definition of themselves is created through whiteness.” For the adults, it seems like a reminder that they can never quite leave the control of their white superiors.
With the exception of the tall quilt, Towns made every work shown in “Take Me Away to the Stars” in 2016, going to his studio above Area 405 in Greenmount West nearly every evening after work and on the weekends. Stewart Watson, who owns the studios there, attested, “I see his light on all the time.”
“I’m so excited about the work that he’s been making,” she added. “Some people kind of work in a patch or work nonstop for a period of time, then I don’t see them for awhile. He’s consistently there when he’s not working at his daytime job. He’s producing, and he’s here and really committed.”
His work was grounded in research, which Watson said gives it an added “sense of enrichment.” It started with a visit to Courtland, Va., where Turner, his co-conspirators and dozens of others were lynched and dismembered after the 1831 uprising. Towns wanted to see where it all happened to better understand his backdrop. He has incorporated much of what he saw – “the vastness of everything, the corn fields, the cotton fields and the trees” – into his newest work.
For purposes of accuracy, the artist did his reading, too. Towns said the very short narrative recorded by Gray from Baltimore, along with “Fires of Jubilee” by Stephen B. Oates, were important references for his work.
Kirk Shannon-Butts, Towns’ studio manager, said his dedication to research is a strong development for the already well-known and acclaimed artist. “He plans the subject matter much more [than before] and he spends a lot of time researching it and developing the basis of the work,” Shannon-Butts said.
Much has changed during the 185 years that separate Turner’s rebellion and the Freddie Gray riots. Slavery was abolished. Jim Crow came and went. Governments began to encourage integration in many aspects of daily American life.
And yet, racial disenfranchisement takes on new forms, and by no means has it disappeared. Many who protested and rioted in April 2015 had had enough of feeling suppressed, beaten on by authorities and ignored in the aftermath. They had a deep-rooted anger that boiled over and, like Turner, sought to get it back by tearing their world down.
“People always say, ‘Why are you burning your hometown, why are you doing this? Do things peacefully,’” Towns said. “But nobody listens when you do things peacefully.”
“Take Me Away to the Stars” opens this Saturday, Nov. 5, at 3 p.m. at Galerie Myrtis, located at 2224 N. Charles Street. The exhibition runs until Feb. 18, 2017.