Storytelling is a form of art, and it is always a pleasure to see how short stories can be told in new ways, especially when the medium takes shape in formats other than print. Artist Stephen Towns is a brilliant storyteller who uses paintings and textiles to tell the stories of Africans enslaved in America and their later descendants. On display through September 2018 at the Baltimore Museum of Art are several masterful demonstrations of Towns’s storytelling in quilt textile and painting form.
In a series titled Story Quilts, Towns retells the life of Nat Turner in seven quilted panels. Turner is most noted for his involvement in a major slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in the 1800s. Turner was also an escaped slave and religious man. Towns captures these and other major events of Turner’s life in his quilts.
Also on display in another part of the Baltimore Museum of Art is Towns’s entry for the coveted Sondheim Artscape Prize. The installation comprises three works that use portraiture to highlight the lives of people who endured the crossing of the Middle Passage and those who remind the artist of his family history. Together, the works create a distinctive mood. Looking at the faces looking back at you in the intimate space makes you feel as if you, too, are part of the story the artist wants to tell. It is as if you are one of the portrait panels.
Taken together, the collection of Towns’s works on display at the BMA show how he is more than just an artist depicting a single scene or moment in time. He tells poignant stories about the American experience by using a variety of media.