The most oft-discussed piece in “Ruminations and a Reckoning,” a solo show at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), is “Birth of a Nation” — a large quilt depicting a silhouetted, female slave nursing a pale white baby against a Betsy Ross flag as the backdrop.
“It’s based off of one of my sisters, who’s since passed,” says Stephen Towns, the soft-spoken artist behind the piece. “She owned a cleaning business and she used to talk about the level of disrespect she would get from cleaning those houses. She would always sort of question ‘How can someone disrespect me when my grandmother literally fed your grandfather?’”
In addition to working as a program coordinator for MICA’s Office of Community Engagement, Towns is a visual artist originally from South Carolina. His Civil War imagery and portraiture caught the eye of BMA Director Christopher Bedford and famed collector Mera Rubell during a studio visit facilitated by BmoreArt, a community-based collaborative art publication that explores Baltimore’s cultural scene. “Chris liked my work,” Towns recalls, “and has been supportive ever since.”
“Ruminations and a Reckoning,” which opened March 7, 2018, was an instant hit. The night of the opening, the BMA hosted a talk between Towns and the internationally-renowned mixed-media artist Mark Bradford, drawing a crowd large enough to fill the museum’s 360-seat Meyerhoff Auditorium. During the event, Bradford said of Towns’ quilts, “In your hands, it’s not just material anymore. You make that fabric feel like figurative painting.”
But long before Towns booked solo shows and filled auditoriums, he was staying with friends and finding work where he could. “I’ve spent a lot of time in retail, doing a lot of odd jobs,” he recalled. “I’ve worked in factories, assembly lines, telemarketing — I’ve done it all.” He found the time to fit his art in-between, exhibiting at group shows or small spaces like Galerie Myrtis in Baltimore’s Station North neighborhood. “I thought it [success] could happen immediately, but it’s taken a long time and a lot of hard work. And patience.”
It was about seven or eight years ago when Towns began working for MICA, starting off as an administrative assistant and moving up to a program assistantship before joining the Office of Community Engagement.
Ultimately, Towns loves to work with and for people. His work — whether it be quilts, acrylic paintings or paper bags on canvas — depicts black beauty in joy and in mourning. “Some parts are painful to make,” Towns said, “so I feel an intense, personal relationship with every piece that I make. But I see that ‘Birth of a Nation’ is the one that resonates a lot with many different people. I’ve gotten not just compliments, but people telling me how much that work means to them.”