“Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance” will open at Reynolda House Museum of American Art on February 18 and will be on view through May 14. The body of work, created by painter and fiber artist Stephen Towns, examines the American dream through the lives of Black Americans from the late 18th century to the present time. Using labor as a backdrop, Towns highlights the role African Americans have played in building the economy and explores how their resilience, resistance and perseverance have challenged the United States to truly embrace the tenets of its Declaration of Independence.
The exhibition showcases 37 works, including paintings and story quilts, that expand the historical narratives of enslaved and free people who toiled under the most extreme hardships, yet persevered through acts of rebellion, skillful guile and self-willed determination.
“Much of the work in ‘Declaration & Resistance’ began when I was quarantining in the spring of 2020,” said Towns. “I thought about how I had the privilege to take a step away from my work. When I returned to my studio, I reflected on how I had gained a deeper appreciation for essential workers risking their lives in the midst of a global health crisis.
“I come from a long line of laborers in Georgia and South Carolina. Prior to being a full-time Artist, I also worked many laborious jobs. This show is a testament to my ancestors and also the coworkers I have befriended along the way.”
Through his work, Towns explores industries such as coal mining, agriculture and domestic labor, as well as labor that highlights care and nurturing such as nursing. A new addition to the exhibition, “Flora and Lillie” (2022), was inspired by Towns’s Winston-Salem residency during the summer of 2022.
Over a two-week period, Towns explored the history of Winston-Salem and the Triad, engaging in research and conversation around the many contributions of Black North Carolinians whose labor built a thriving industry. In the Reynolda Archives, a photograph of Flora Pledger and Lillie Hamlin—residents of Reynolda’s Five Row, a village for laborers—captured his attention. The photograph is now beautifully reimagined as a work of acrylic, oil and metal leaf on panel. “Flora and Lillie” will be on view for the first time when the exhibition opens on February 18.
“Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance” is organized by guest curator Kilolo Luckett, founding executive director and chief curator of Alma|Lewis, an experimental, contemporary art platform for critical thinking, dialogue and creative expression dedicated to Black culture. “Through his beautifully imposing quilts and mixed-media paintings, Stephen offers viewers sobering truths and tender stories of Black life that break away from dominant narratives that continue to plague society in the United States of America,” shared Luckett.
Stephen Towns and Kilolo Luckett will be in attendance on opening day of the exhibition, offering a public program during which they will discuss the inspiration for the exhibition in a moderated conversation with Dr. Paul Baker, public historian and director of the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh. The program, to be held on February 18 at 11 a.m. at Reynolda House, is free to attend with general Museum admission and also will be offered virtually via livestream. Tickets will be available to purchase on February 1 online at reynolda.org. Additional programming to be announced.
“Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance” is organized and toured by The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. The exhibition is supported by Eden Hall Foundation; Arts, Equity, & Education Fund; De Buck Gallery, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Hillman Exhibition Fund of The Westmoreland Museum of American Art. This exhibition is completed in partnership with the Rivers of Steel Heritage Area with funding provided in part by a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Recreation and Conservation, Environmental Stewardship Fund, administered by the Rivers of Steel Heritage Corp.
Reynolda is grateful for the support of major sponsors the Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County, the Cathleen and Ray McKinney Exhibition Fund, First Horizon, Novant Health, and Womble Bond Dickinson; contributing sponsors Pam and Fred Kahl and Terrie and John Davis; and exhibition partner The Robert and Constance Emken Fund of The Winston-Salem Foundation.
About Stephen Towns
Stephen Towns was born in 1980 in Lincolnville, South Carolina and lives and works in Baltimore. He trained as a painter with a BFA in studio art from the University of South Carolina, and has also developed a rigorous, self-taught quilting practice. In 2018, The Baltimore Museum of Art presented his first museum exhibition, “Stephen Towns: Rumination and a Reckoning.”
His work has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, Artforum, The Washington Post, Hyperallergic, Cultured, Forbes, AFROPUNK and American Craft. Towns was honored as the inaugural recipient of the 2016 Municipal Art Society of Baltimore Travel Prize, and in 2021, Towns was the first Black Artist in Residence at The Fallingwater Institute, at the Architect Frank Lloyd Wrights’ infamous Fallingwater in Pennsylvania. In 2021, Towns was also awarded the Maryland State Arts Council’s Individual Artist Award.
Towns’s work is in the collections of Art + Practice, Los Angeles, CA; Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD; Boise Museum of Art, Boise, ID; City of Charleston, Charleston, SC; Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, MI; Huntington Museum of Art, Huntington, WV; National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC; The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO; Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African American Art, Asbury, NJ; The Rockwell Museum of Corning, NY; The Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, PA and Wichita Museum of Art, Wichita, KS, and is held in private collections nationally and abroad.
About Kilolo Luckett
Kilolo Luckett is a Pittsburgh-based art historian and curator. With over 20 years of experience in arts administration and cultural production, she is committed to elevating the voices of underrepresented visual artists, specifically women and Black and Brown artists. Luckett is founding executive director and chief curator of ALMA|LEWIS (named after abstract artists Alma Thomas and Norman Lewis), an experimental, contemporary art platform for critical thinking, dialogue and creative expression dedicated to Black culture. She recently served as an Art Commissioner for the City of Pittsburgh’s Art Commission for 12 years. She is also currently writing an authorized biography on Naomi Sims, one of the first Black supermodels.
Hours and Admission
Reynolda House Museum of American Art, located at 2250 Reynolda Rd., is open to visitors Tuesday–Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday from 1:30–4:30 p.m. Admission is charged, though several free admission categories apply. Reynolda Gardens is open from dawn to dusk daily, free of charge. The Greenhouse is open Tuesday–Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Reynolda Village merchants’ hours vary. No ticket is needed to shop at the Reynolda House Museum Store.
Reynolda is set on 170 acres in Winston-Salem, N.C. and comprises Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Reynolda Gardens and Reynolda Village Shops and Restaurants. The Museum presents a renowned art collection in a historic and incomparable setting: the original 1917 interiors of Katharine and R. J. Reynolds’s 34,000-square-foot home. Its collection is a chronology of American art and featured exhibitions are offered in the Museum’s Babcock Wing Gallery and historic house bedrooms. The Gardens serve as a 134-acre outdoor horticultural oasis open to the public year-round, complete with colorful formal gardens, nature trails and a greenhouse. In the Village, the estate’s historic buildings are now home to a vibrant mix of boutiques, restaurants, shops and services. Plan your visit at reynolda.org and use the free mobile app, Reynolda Revealed, to self-tour the estate.
Lead image: Stephen Towns (born 1980), Flora and Lillie, 2022. Acrylic, oil, metal leaf on panel, 48 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.
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