A collection of paintings and story quilts that expands the narrative of enslaved and free African American laborers is on display at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem. The Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance exhibition showcases the subjects’ dignity and determination. 

Walking into the gallery, there are dozens of colorful large-panel paintings and quilts. A bright cloud of paper Monarch butterflies — a recurring spiritual theme in Towns’ work — hovers overhead held by thin strings. On a guided tour, Curator Allison Slaby is drawn immediately to a roughly 5 by 5-foot story quilt depicting George Washington’s formerly enslaved person Ona Judge. She's represented with natural fabrics, crystal glass beads, and resin buttons. In 1796, Judge walked out of the Washington home, hopped on a ship, and sailed to New Hampshire where she lived for the rest of her life.

"So, this is Ona Judge and her family," says Slaby. "We know that when she emancipated herself and moved to New Hampshire, she did marry, she had children. And in the distance beyond this scene of her family resting on the banks of this river, we see The Nancy which is the ship that she boarded in Philadelphia and sailed to freedom."

Towns' paintings are based on archival photographs — Black nurses who worked for the segregated Union army during the Civil War, Reconstruction era West Virginia coal miners relegated to the most dangerous jobs — but his treatments are unique. Many subjects are haloed using a metal leaf technique known as gilding. The miners are adorned with protective ancestral spirits in the form of yellow canaries.

"When I make things, I want them to be beautiful," says Towns. "And I want people to find sort of pleasure in looking at it. If they don’t get the deep meaning behind the work, then at least they have sort of a wonderful visual experience going through the show. But I do want people to gain some knowledge when they see my work and particularly this exhibition."

Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance will remain on display at Reynolda through May 14.


300x250 Ad

300x250 Ad

Support quality journalism, like the story above, with your gift right now.