Baltimore artist Stephen Towns lands career-making solo show at Baltimore Museum of Art

Stitch by stitch, the local artist Stephen Towns has sewn his mother and five sisters into the very fabric of the 10 luminous quilts on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

These fierce, smart, loyal and devoted women helped make Towns the man and artist he is today, and they’re represented through a fabric trail running throughout “Stephen Towns: Rumination and a Reckoning.”

This is Towns’ first show in a museum, a watershed moment in any artist’s career. Visitors will find colorful cloth artworks studded with glass beads that sparkle and glow in the light. They will find artworks that curators say combine the techniques of painting and quilting to create a new, hybrid genre. They will find artworks that appear to be telling a story about a historic moment dominated by men — in this case, the bloody Nat Turner rebellion of 1831, the only effective, sustained slave revolt in the U.S.

But beneath all of that runs a story about women. Towns’ mother sews and all his sisters sew. When he was in the early stages of making this quilt cycle, he visited his family in South Carolina to raid his mother’s fabric box. He came back to Baltimore with swatches from the same bolts from which his thrifty relatives made their dresses, and wove those scraps into his artworks.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a quilt greater than seven feet tall and five feet wide called “Birth of a Nation.” A black woman is nursing a white infant while standing in front of the original American flag. The flag’s white stripes are fashioned from a cotton fabric worn by the artist’s mother, Patricia Towns. The wet nurse’s red and green printed headwrap came from a bolt that once clothed the artist’s late sister, Mabel Ancrum.

It’s no coincidence that the flag is suspended above a mound of earth that may symbolize from just what kind of fertile soil this nation sprang.

“I created this work to be a memorial for Mabel, who passed away in 2003,” said Towns, who at age 38 is the youngest of 11 children.

“She and my sister Novie owned a cleaning business, and when I was 11 or 12, sometimes I would go with them to clean wealthy people’s homes and offices. Mabel would talk about the level of uncomfortableness she felt in that situation. ‘Why do they treat me that way,’ she would say, ‘when my great-grandmother fed their grandfather?’ ”

Towns’ sister, Romena Mitchell, 51, of Fort Meade, drove to see her brother’s artwork. Every time she found a familiar fabric scrap embedded in one of the quilts, she simultaneously smiled and teared up.

“Stephen’s quilts are amazing,” she said. “When I look at them, all these memories come flooding back. He made me cry.”

Art world insiders have noticed that Towns’ debut show is being handled by the museum with the fanfare that often accompanies career breakthroughs. There was a preview for members of the news media and a brief story about the opening in The New York Times. There was even a public forum that packed the museum’s 360-seat auditorium in which Towns and the art world superstar Mark Bradford discussed their creative processes.

“I was really blown away when I saw your work,” Bradford told Towns. “In your hands, it’s not just material anymore. You make that fabric feel like figurative painting.”

Towns initially trained as a painter; he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art from the University of South Carolina in 2004.

“What fascinated me about these quilts is the way Stephen takes these gestures and postures that painters use to tell a story and translates them into quilting,” said Cecilia Wichmann, the museum’s assistant curator of contemporary art. “He’s using a visual vocabulary drawn from the long history of painting and combining it with the simplified forms, brilliant hues and patterning of quilts to tell a very human story.”

For instance, the quilt titled “The Baptism of Ethelred T. Brantley” is set at a river bank, and Towns has arranged his fabric scraps to create realistically rippled reflections. Similarly, “The March to Jerusalem” appears to take place at dusk, and Towns has mottled the landscape with patches of sun and shadow.

Towns supports himself by working in an administrative capacity at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, and it wasn’t too long ago that he was sleeping on friends’ couches and making his art wherever and whenever he could. In the past, he’s shown his work at small local galleries, and in 2015 he picked up a $6,000 Rubys Artist Project Grant. But he freely admits to feeling overwhelmed by the current level of attention his art is receiving.

“I’ve been creating art for 20 years,” he said. “To have this finally happening feels surreal.”

The forum, for example, wasn’t merely filled to capacity on a weekday night. The museum live-streamed the event, and a spokeswoman for the institution said it was viewed more than 700 times. Some of that excitement likely resulted from the presence of the Los Angeles-based Bradford, who represented the U.S. in the 2017 Venice Biennale, often described as the Art World Olympics. But for once, Bradford wasn’t the main draw.

As Towns walked onto the stage, the audience rose to its feet and erupted into wave after wave of cheers. “We love you, Stephen!” a woman shouted.

It’s easy to feel warmly towards Towns, who discusses past struggles with unusual openness. As a child, he was the ultimate outsider. Not only was young Stephen poor and African-American, he was a gay boy being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness — a religion that Towns says rejects homosexuality and in which believers are expected to hold themselves aloof from mainstream society.

“it’s a religion where you’re isolated from other people,” he said. “You don’t celebrate birthdays, Christmas or holidays. You don’t salute the Flag.”

He remembers vividly an incident that occurred while he was in kindergarten. A teacher grabbed the child and forced him to honor the Stars and Stripes when he attempted to turn away, as his church had taught him to do. As a result, young Stephen completely stopped speaking, at least while he was in school — a form of selective mutism that persisted through the 11th grade.

“What helped was that I always had a group of kids around me,” he said, “and they would tell the teacher, ‘Stephen doesn’t talk.’”

But Towns didn’t leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses until he reached adulthood. As a teen, his awakening sexuality paradoxically caused him to cling more closely to his faith.

“When I was growing up, I felt like a bad person,” he said. “Religion was my way of trying to erase the gay from me.”

No wonder Towns became an artist. What other voice did he have?

This soft-spoken, gentle man is inexorably drawn to exploring the most traumatic moments in U.S. history, moments that inflicted psychic wounds that even today haven’t healed. But he’s also extremely sensitive to other people’s feelings and will go to great lengths to avoid inflicting pain.

Last September, Goucher College mounted an exhibit of nearly two dozen of Towns’ paintings that included six portraits of former slaves executed during the aftermath of the Nat Turner rebellion. In each painting, the victim faces viewers and one hand grasps the noose tightening around his or her neck. The gesture is ambiguous; it’s not clear if the condemned person is attempting to loosen the rope and escape, or boldly raising a fist in defiance.

A female African-American security guard was offended by the paintings and complained to school administrators. After thinking about her reaction, Towns voluntarily removed the paintings. In their place, he left six blue, taped rectangles indicating where the artworks had hung and a statement of explanation. Though some likened the artist’s decision to self-censorhip, Towns said he has no regrets.

“My goal was to educate people,” he said. “I never wanted to cause anyone pain. After the works came down, I had long conversations with faculty and students and staff members about our institutions and the role art plays in them. So the artwork did what I wanted it to do without it having to be shown.”

Besides, the artist himself wasn’t completely satisfied with his Nat Turner paintings. They didn’t seem fully resolved. Something was missing, though he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. Eventually, Towns realized that the absence wasn’t a “what.” It was a “who.” The story he was trying to tell couldn’t be told without the presence of women. And to include them, he’d have to learn how to quilt.

“I tried telling this story through paintings and I tried telling it through drawings, but I couldn’t get them to say what I wanted them to say,” he said. “Quilting is a very loving medium and it’s very maternal. I had to learn how to quilt for this story to work.”

He was warned that it wouldn’t be easy. Nonetheless, in 2014 Towns tracked down an instructional video on YouTube and played it again and again, scrutinizing every detail. Then, in his tiny apartment, he began work on the quilt that would eventually become “Birth of a Nation.” The nine Nat Turner quilts followed.

“While I worked, I thought about the labor of sewing and all the anonymous women who have done it,” Towns said. “I developed callouses on my fingers and sometimes they would bleed. There literally is my blood in this work.

“That’s why I had to keep doing it.”

“Stephen Towns: Rumination and a Reckoning” runs through Sept. 2 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Dr. Free. 443-573-1700 or artbma.org

mmccauley@baltsun.com

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