Two of the Stephen Towns’ gorgeous quilt pieces hang in an abbreviated hallway of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Rumination and Reckoning, the Baltimore artist’s debut solo museum show, is an intimate collection of his quilts from a recent, breakthrough body of fabric works, including a few new, unseen pieces. Two of these new works are the quilt portraits of Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in 1832, and his wife Cherry Turner. They’re mounted side by side in a narrow walkway leading to two larger galleries in the BMA’s American Wing, where early American furniture and material objects are exhibited alongside numerous portraits, hung salon style, by early American painters such as Charles Wilson Peale, his son Rembrandt Peale, and Gilbert Stuart. Some of the esteemed men and members of prominent colonial Maryland families hanging on these walls—such as Levin Winder and descendants of Declaration of Independence signatory Charles Carroll of Carrollton—owned slaves.
That these portrait venerations are but a few steps away from Towns’ exhibition feels intentionally provocative, a reminder of that even as you drink deep of a contemporary African-American artist’s sublime work that our country’s heinous history is always lurking right around the corner. This setting is also a quiet reminder of the economic chasm that separated some Americans’ lifestyles from the black lives that Towns’ depicts. Rumination and Reckoning occupies a small gallery space, filled with the seven pieces that form Towns’ “Story Quilts” and the large, centerpiece “Birth of a Nation,” in addition to the two Turner portraits. For an intimate exhibition, it delivers a powerful punch.
First off, the quilts are surreptitiously stunning. Towns, trained as a painter, began teaching himself quilting in 2014, and his earliest quilt pieces looked like a painter thinking with fabrics. He first exhibited “Birth of a Nation” at his Take Me Away to the Stars solo show at Baltimore’s Galerie Myrtis, where he debuted recent paintings and quilt pieces. As a painter Towns explored portraiture of African-American figures with the golden halo of medieval religious works, and there’s a painterly sense of composition to “Birth.” On the right side of the vertical composition an African-American woman nurses a swaddled white baby; she’s framed against the thirteen-star early American flag. It’s a Madonna and child work that squarely places black labor as the fuel that’s fed this developing country from its very beginning. As thematically arresting as it is, it’s also relatively simple in its execution, with Towns arranging pieces of fabric like hues in a composition.
In the Story Quilts, which depict the life of Nat Turner, Towns’ visual ambition and technical skill seems to advance by leaps and bounds with each successive panel. In “Special Child” Towns uses more than ten different fabric colors and designs to depict a young Turner sitting on a woman’s lap reading the Bible, which Towns renders using a combination of natural and synthetic fabric, nylon tulle, polyester and cotton thread, metallic thread, cotton/poly blend batting, crystal glass beads, resin, and metal buttons. In “One Night at Cabin Pond,” which depicts Turner’s meeting with the original band of rebels, Towns seems to spy the conclave from the ground looking up. Six men in hats form a circle, a ring of trees behind them and a blue sky in the middle. Two men point, perhaps at others in discussion.
Both “Special Child” and “One Night at Cabin Pond” first appeared in Take Me Away to the Stars in 2016, and they capture the confidence Towns was gathering with quilting as a medium. The two new panels in the Story Quilts series, however, are quite simply knockouts.
“The Baptism of Ethelred T. Brantley” and “The March to Jerusalem” date from this year, and both display how sophisticated Towns’ quilting techniques have become. “Baptism” depicts Turner baptizing the poor, white, ostracized Brantley, and it’s a complex work. Turner stands in water up to his thighs holding a Bible and raising his arms to the heavens in the middle ground. In the lower left quadrant Towns foregrounds Brantley’s submerging head, with stitching creating a waterline ripple across his skin and clothing. Three fish swim in the lower right quadrant, and behind everything the sun sits low against an inky sky. It’s deft combination of compositional movement and sacred action.
“The March to Jerusalem” may be the strongest quilt piece Towns has so far created. It depicts Turner leading his rebels to an armory in Jerusalem, the county seat of Southampton County, Virginia, and encountering the white militia en route who would capture and defeat them. In this horizontal rectangle panel, Towns foregrounds the rebels on the left side; the militia is an elongated purple triangle, white thread forming the shadowy outlines of human forms in the distance. A low slung full moon sends beams of white through tree tops in the distance. One of the foreground rebels holds an axe; another, a torch, for which Towns uses a combination of red, gold, and orange fabric to create a fire’s swirling intensity. Colored thread creates rim lighting around the black faces of the rebels from the torch. “The March to Jerusalem” is a fabric work that conveys the divine, vivid power of an illuminated manuscript.
On Nov. 11, 1831, Turner was executed by hanging in Jerusalem. Towns doesn’t depict that violent end. Inside the comfortable setting of a museum in a city as hyper-segregated as Baltimore, he doesn’t need to. Social media, the daily news, and walking down the street provides plenty of reminders of the violence that continues to be inflicted onto black bodies. Instead, he depicts Nat and Cherry Turner in old-fashioned portrait styles. The panels are vertical rectangles, but Towns quilts frames and oval mat board around their heads. Nat faces right and wears a striped blue button-down shirt and beige jacket; a blue farmhouse sits over his shoulder in the background. Cherry faces left, wears a lovely blue floral print dress with lace neckline, holds a bouquet of pink flowers, and the same blue farmhouse sits over her shoulder in the background.
Towns’ titles for Turners portraits are “Let Not Man Put Asunder: Portrait of Nat Turner” and “Let Not Man Put Asunder: Portrait of Cherry Turner,” an allusion to marriage found in the Bible verse that begins “What therefore God hath joined together” in the King James translation. In Towns’ hands the Turners are the epitome of a loving, upstanding early America couple, only they weren’t allowed to be. They were separated when their owner Samuel Turner died. Cherry and their children were sold off.
Throughout his paintings of African-Americans, Towns has used butterflies to symbolize transformation and migration, and in both the Turner portraits three yellow butterflies flutter around the figures, with one seeming to land on each of their shoulders. With Rumination and Reckoning Towns subtly and poignantly uses Turner’s story to spotlight how America tore asunder many, many, many lives. For the six months of this exhibition, at least, Towns unites them once again.
Stephen Towns: Rumination and a Reckoning runs through September 2, 2018, at the Baltimore Museum of Art.