Stephen Towns explores the American dream through Black Americans

Opening on Sunday, January 30, 2022 and remaining on view through May 8 at The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, PA, Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance features a body of newly created work by artist Stephen Towns. Organized by guest curator Kilolo Luckett in collaboration with Towns, the exhibition examines the American dream through the lives of Black Americans. Using labor as a backdrop, Towns highlights the role African Americans have played in the economy and explores the resilience, resistance, and endurance that have challenged the United States to truly embrace the tenets of its Declaration of Independence.

“Much of the work in Declaration & Resistance began when I was quarantining in the spring of 2020. 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,” Towns has said. “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.”

For this exhibition, Towns is creating over 30 new figurative paintings and story quilts that, along with existing work, 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. Working in series, Towns explores industries such as coal mining, agriculture and domestic labor, as well as labor that highlights care and nurturing such as nursing, a theme that the artist felt was important to pursue as he created new work during the COVID-19 pandemic that highlighted the racial disparities that continue to plague the country.

The Coal Miners series features Black miners of West Virginia who were relegated to the most difficult, underpaid, most dangerous and insecure jobs.

Paintings in the Cooks series call attention to the hidden figures who helped shape American cuisine. Among these are Elsie Henderson, who worked for several wealthy Pittsburgh families including the Kaufmanns, owners of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Fallingwater.

Lastly, Towns pays tribute to Ona Judge, a formerly enslaved servant and escapee from President George Washington’s plantation. Judge was an invaluable seamstress and body servant to Martha Washington, who as a teenager escaped Mount Vernon and fled to New England.

Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance is organized by guest curator Kilolo Luckett, 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.

“I’m very committed to questions around American patriotism, exceptionalism and labor. I’m also interested in querying the foundations of belonging and access, and unsettle some of the assumptions we have,” Luckett has said. “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.”

Stephen Towns, The Pioneer, 2020. 30inx40in. Oil, acrylic, fabric, buttons, Bristol paper, mica flakes, graphite, glitter, charcoal on panel.
Stephen Towns, The Pioneer, 2020. 30inx40in. Oil, acrylic, fabric, buttons, Bristol paper, mica flakes, graphite, glitter, charcoal on panel.

A full-color catalogue will be available in April 2022 featuring an essay by Luckett. Additionally, a short documentary film on Towns is being produced by Eleven Stanley Productions, founded by Njaimeh Njie, a Pittsburgh based photographer, filmmaker, and multimedia producer. A variety of public programs will be presented by The Westmoreland throughout the run of the exhibition to provide the opportunity for deeper connections. More information on the Museum’s public programming and events can be found at thewestmoreland.org/events.

“At the core of our permanent collection are scenes of industry, highlighting the labor of this region during the big steel era. This exhibition centers the lived experiences and contributions of Black Americans, whose labor built this nation, through beautifully rendered multi-media and textile works,” Anne Kraybill, The Richard M. Scaife Director/CEO of The Westmoreland, said. “With a shared focus on labor, Stephen’s art connects well to our collection, but more importantly, his works reveal stories that have been largely left untold in American history and in American art. This is why we are so honored to have the opportunity to collaborate with him and Kilolo in presenting Declaration & Resistance and to bring more light to these stories of resilience,”

About Stephen Towns:

Stephen Towns was born in 1980 in Lincolnville, South Carolina and lives and works in Baltimore. He received a Bachelor of Fine Art in painting 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 TimesThe Washington Post, Hyperallergic, Cultured, AFROPUNK, HYPEBEAST, American Craft Council Magazine, and The Baltimore Sun. 

Towns was honored as the inaugural recipient of the 2016 Municipal Art Society of Baltimore Travel Prize and received a Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance Rubys Artist Grant in 2015.

About Kilolo Luckett:

Kilolo Luckett is a Pittsburgh-based art historian and curator. With over twenty 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.

About The Westmoreland Museum of American Art:

Western Pennsylvania’s only museum dedicated to American art, The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, is a place to share meaningful cultural experiences that open the door to new ideas, perspectives and possibilities. The Westmoreland’s extraordinary permanent collection with its strong focus on the art and artists of Southwestern Pennsylvania is complemented by an impressive temporary exhibition schedule featuring both nationally traveling exhibitions and those organized by the Museum.

Additionally, The Westmoreland presents a full slate of community-oriented programming as well as special events. More information is available at thewestmoreland.org and on the Museum’s FacebookTwitter and Instagram profiles.

General admission to the Museum is free with advance online registration recommended.

The Museum’s operating hours are Wednesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm. One can find information on registering for a visit at thewestmoreland.org/visit.

For information on ways to connect with the Museum through virtual experiences, please click here.

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