“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.