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Name to know: Stephen Towns, visual artist

Stephen Towns' modern-day saints all have halos, but none acquired them easily.

As part of The Baltimore Sun's Fall Arts Guide, reporters and critics picked 10 up-and-comers whose names you should get to know. See the full list here

Stephen Towns, 36, visual artist

Portraits of modern-day saints hang on the walls of Stephen Towns' Station North studio, their gaze both a benediction and a call to action.

The saints wear the customary halos, though none acquired them easily. Some portraits are of enslaved children. Others are of the victims of lynchings. A third category represents that frequently maligned group, 21st century African-American men.

All show just the subject's head, neck and upper chest — the better to focus on their faces. In each, the humanity shines through.

"I'm always thinking about representations of people of color," says Towns, a program coordinator in the Maryland Institute, College of Art's Office of Community Engagement. He believes that people are basically good, but sometimes wishes there was an outer manifestation of what lies in their hearts.

His work sets out to provide exactly that.

"What if we could see halos around the heads of the people we pass on the street?" he asks. "Think of how different the world would be."

Towns' portraits, many painted on wood panels, fuse medieval traditions (those halos are painted in metal leaf) with a modern aesthetic. Some incorporate pieces of fabric and other media.

He received a $6,000 Ruby Artist Project Grant in late 2015 to explore that vision as it relates to the historic Nat Turner rebellion. The result — about two dozen paintings and quilts — will make up a show opening Nov. 5 and running through Feb. 18, 2017 at Galerie Myrtis, 2224 N. Charles St. It will be his first solo show since his 2014 exhibit at Gallery CA.

In August, Towns picked up an another grant, also for $6,000, when he won the first travel prize awarded by the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore City. The artist will visit historic sites in Ghana and Senegal along the transatlantic slave trade route in preparation for a future body of work.

Towns grew up in South Carolina near Charleston and received a bachelor's degree in fine art from the University of South Carolina in 2004.

"South Carolina has slave markets and plantations," he says, adding that the high toll exacted by racism "never felt real to me until I moved to Baltimore.

"In South Carolina, I experienced poverty," he says. "Here I see poverty and violence in a way that I didn't see down there. This new body of work is going to explore the psychology of violence."

The soft-spoken Towns is well-liked in Baltimore's artistic community. During a recent public dispute with another artist, Towns accused the other painter of appropriating key elements of his style — including the halos — and of fetishizing the black male body.

Most commenters on Facebook sided emphatically with Towns.

"I hated having to call him out," Towns says. "But I have a voice, and I couldn't let what he was doing pass."

George Ciscle, curator in residence at MICA and the founder of The Contemporary museum, was taken with the paintings in Towns' 2014 show. But when he saw the artist's recent work, he was startled by his rapid artistic growth.

"There's been a very clear development in what Stephen is doing in a very short period of time," Ciscle says.

"He's asking important questions and breaking new ground. He's thinking about portraiture in the context of abstract art, which is something we never do, and that's exciting."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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