BALTIMORE — The room in the Baltimore Museum of Art housing Rumination and a Reckoning, an exhibition of 10 quilts by Stephen Towns, feels more like an intimate chapel than a textiles gallery. It’s not just the religious iconography the local artist laces through his work or the placement of his largest piece, “Birth of a Nation” (2014), as a commanding centerpiece to anchor the smaller, narrative quilts chronicling the private life and fabled rebellion of slave insurgent Nat Turner (much like the Stations of the Cross in a church). It’s also the viewers’ reverence for Towns’s work and the figures stitched within their fibers.
Michele Tuck-Ponder, for example, made a pilgrimage here from Princeton, NJ to see this small but monumental exhibition, Towns’s first museum show. She said she’s a descendent of Nat Turner, who she’s relieved to see represented as a complicated human being. He’s depicted as a self-proclaimed prophet as shown in “The Baptism of Ethelred T. Brantley” (2018), to one half of an enigmatic marriage in “Let Not Man Put Asunder” (2018), a duo of daguerreotype-inspired wedding portraits — rather than as a mythical character who is either lionized or vilified. Add to that, Tuck-Ponder is a quilter herself.
“I’m really excited about this and think it’s amazing and just really expands a tradition that stands on the shoulders of so many women who have done this before,” she said to Towns, who happened to be in the gallery at the same time. He’s soft-spoken and visibly humbled by her praise.
Towns is cognizant of his position as a man trained as a painter taking up a medium passed down through history by self-taught women, and when talking about his work he points to the black women forebearers of quilting like Harriet Powers, Faith Ringgold, and Elizabeth Talford Scott (mother of fellow Baltimore quilter Joyce J. Scott, better known for her confrontational glass sculptures and beadwork). He takes that acknowledgment a significant step further by anointing African-American women as the lifeblood of the country itself in “Birth of a Nation.” A staggering emblem hanging just centimeters over a neat line of soil, the quilt places a black wet nurse feeding a white infant over a 13-star American flag.
For Towns, who comes from a Southern African-American family, there’s a personal specificity to the narrative of the black woman who toils for the benefit of white people and is met with little more than contempt. The piece is dedicated to his sister Mable Ancrum, who co-ran a cleaning business with another sister, often tending to the homes of wealthy white people until she died in 2003. “She always felt like there was a level of disrespect,” he said. “She always wondered, well, how can you disrespect me when my grandmother literally fed your grandfather?”
The flag’s bars appear clean while the woman’s skirt is stained with coffee and tea. She is faceless, her dipped jawline silhouetted only by the punctuated line of Towns’s hand stitch. More defined is the blissful face of the white woman in Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s “The Swing” (1767), which appears in printed fabric patched into the wet nurse’s clothes — a telling contrast between the uncelebrated labor of the marginalized and the leisure it makes possible for the rest. The narrow space between the flag and the dirt on the floor reads as an ironic nod to the sanctioned etiquette performed for the flag (it must never so much as graze the ground) even though many of the people it ostensibly represents rarely receive the same reverence.
Before creating “Birth of a Nation,” his first ever quilt, in 2014, Towns tried to get this historical and personal injustice across through painting — for which he has been known in Baltimore since he moved here in 2010. He found that for this work paint didn’t carry enough weight.
“Quilting was the only way to get it done because it’s an old tradition; it’s a tradition that African Americans have used for many years; it’s a way of preserving memory through fabric,” he said.
In sewing each quilt, he thought about memory and labor as he pushed his needle through the fibers, often bloodying his fingers in the process, sometimes messing up and pulling out the stitching and starting over again.
“I’ve been self taught just out of necessity,” he said — adding that he initially tried to purchase a large flag to use as the surface of “Birth of a Nation,” but couldn’t afford it. “I think as a person of color you sort of learn to be resourceful with what you have, so if I don’t have anything I’ll find a way to make it.”
Towns culled many of the scraps he used in his quilts from his family’s home near Charleston, SC, where he was born in 1980, the youngest of 11 children, and grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. He said that upon seeing his quilts, his mother and sister recognized some of the fabrics from dresses they’d made for themselves to wear to the Kingdom Hall.
During the same visit to his show, Towns encountered a class from an East Baltimore elementary school on a field trip. He shook their hands and collected each student’s name before they returned to pointing out their favorite textiles used in “Special Child,” (2016) a piece acquired by the BMA for its collection from Towns’s Story Quilts series. The quilt depicts a young Nat Turner reading the Bible with his grandmother in a field. One student enjoyed the florals in the woman’s faded blouse; another liked the paisley-accented butterflies.
More captivating to the kids was the iridescent synthetic fabric Towns layers throughout the story quilts to form the night sky, glimmering with metal and glass beads. The layering of the material gives the quilts a depth that shifts and gleams as the viewer moves around the work, a painterly quality Towns can’t avoid.
“I always think of a quilt as a painting first,” he said. He discussed bridging his background as a painter with his newer medium of quilting the evening of his BMA opening at a public talk with celebrated abstract painter Mark Bradford, whose 2017 Venice Biennale exhibition Tomorrow Is Another Day will come to the museum in September. (Towns will participate in another talk tied to his exhibition with Michelle Obama portraitist and fellow Baltimore painter Amy Sherald on May 30.) “In your hands it’s not just material anymore,” Bradford said to Towns during the event. “You made that material feel like figurative painting to me.”
Perhaps the most painting-like quilt on view is “The March to Jerusalem” (2018) a view from behind a group of Turner rebels as they face down an approaching mob of armed slavers, vaguely recalling Francisco Goya’s “The Third of May 1808” (1814–15). Towns applies the glow of a burning torch to his insurgents using layers of translucent orange fabric and cloaks the slavers in moonlit fog via thin films of white tulle.
Essential in any retelling of the Turner rebellion — which resulted in the deaths of 55 to 65 white slave owners and was met with the retaliatory killings of around 120 African Americans including the vicious execution of Turner — the suggestion of violence in Towns’s work is persistent. Last fall, the brutality present in his work prompted six paintings in Towns’s solo show at Goucher College to be removed from view after an employee took issue with his depictions of slave insurrectionists holding nooses around their own necks, spurring a debate on campus and in the surrounding arts scene. Some criticized the employee’s complaint and Towns’s concession to remove the paintings as a form of censorship, but the artist was more sympathetic to the offended employee, a black member of the college’s public safety department who while at work did not want to experience the discomfort the paintings produced.
“It created an opportunity for the students and staff members to have a conversation about the artwork, and why they felt the art was uncomfortable, and how the themes that come up in the artwork were still relevant in that institution,” Towns said, reflecting on the incident months later during his visit to the BMA. “Even though the work came down, it did what it was supposed to do.”
Though Towns’s quilts are less explicit than the noose paintings, they still bring the country’s history of cruelty to the surface, asking: Whose violence is justified? But it’s clear in the way Towns talks about his art — he always qualifies explanations of his work by starting with “for me … ” — that he is less interested in forcing confrontations with traumatic history than in making space for varied readings of its components and the potentially spiritual experience of its collective presence. Even when facing unequivocal horrors, there is always room for nuance.
It’s fitting, he noted, that the gallery where his show is installed is situated in the museum’s American Wing, wedged between a Federal period room and glass cases holding decorative pieces of colonial finery. Shifting from those displays to return his gaze to his portrait of an enslaved black woman reading to her grandson, he paused before offering a concise trajectory of American history: “This is why everything else here exists.”
Rumination and a Reckoning continues at the Baltimore Museum of Art (10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore, Maryland) through Sept. 2.