Declaration and Resistance: A conversation with artist Stephen Towns

Photo courtesy of Joseph Hyde

Among the luminosity of gold leaf and stitched fabric are the portraits of Black Americans whose stories “once slipped through the margins of society,” as stated by Kilolo Luckett, and have been given life through the breath and work of Stephen Towns.  

In his 2021-2022 exhibit “Declaration and Resistance,” Towns explores the American dream through the lens of African American workers and their influence on shaping society. 

Among 35 painting and story quilts created and currently displayed at the Boise Art Museum are the stories of perseverance and love that exist among Black individuals outside the clutches of white supremacy. 

In collaboration with Curator Kilolo Luckett, Towns walks us through the stories of “The Nurtures,” “The Coal Miners” and “A New Generation,” exploring the impact of nurses, educators, cooks, workers and everyday individuals. 

Through the use of archives, Towns collected photographs, publications and oral histories to resurrect and mend the missing pieces of American history. 

Naomi Priddy: What was it like holding space for so many individuals and stories over the past few years?

Stephen Towns: It was overwhelming, but it was good to sort of go through these stories, but because before COVID, I spent a lot of time working. Now I’m a full-time artist, but I wasn’t a full-time artist before, so spending lots of time learning about stories of workers, working, workers strikes, just things that people were going through doing labor, was very sort of eye opening while at the same time we were going through this crisis of labor of essential workers. Everything was really eye opening at that time period.

NP: You said that this exhibit had been one of the most challenging ones you’d worked on. Would you say it was for similar reasons … or was there anything else specific that made this more challenging than other projects?

ST: It was the sheer amount of work that I had done … I created a lot of work for that show and I had all of these ideas that I wanted to get out, and I didn’t sort of reign in myself and say, “Wait, like maybe a little less.” I wanted to get … everything done. And so it was because there were just so many pieces that I was working on at the same time, that made it overwhelming.But then I realized I’m making artwork. These other people were doing much more … It’s a thing of pleasure that I’m able to do this. I’m very lucky to be able to spend my time doing this.

[Photo of “I Am the Glory,” featured in Stephen Towns’ art exhibit “Declaration and Resistance.”]
Photo courtesy of Joseph Hyde

NP: You mentioned that initially your work was supposed to take on a darker, heavier tone and then you transformed it into something that was more celebratory. Do you wanna talk a little bit about what made that transition happen?

ST: I had spent a lot of time learning, learning about coal miners … I was going into chain gains. I was going into a lot of recon post-war sort of reconstruction workforce, and there were some very specific themes that I was going to talk about there, but I think going through COVID was already very stressful …  so I needed to pick lighter work. A lot of my work previous to this show was about enslaved people in the United States. And so I spent so many years learning about that time period that I sort of  just needed to take a small break and sort of focus on sort of the lighter, not necessarily lighter aspects, but like you said, the celebratory things that people have overcome.

NP: What was the emotional relationship you started to feel with the individuals you were painting about?

ST: Because I work a lot from archival photos a lot of it is about seeing someone and seeing the look in someone’s eyes and figuring out just like what they were going through at that time period, and a lot of times it’s just like I have an intuition or something is telling me that this person wants their story to be told. And the sort of the difficult thing is that sometimes we don’t have all of the backstory behind a person, and I hope that at some point somebody will be able to do that work sort of long after I’m gone. Because I like to distinguish that I’m an artist and not a historian, and it takes a lot more work to be a historian than it does for me to make these artworks.

NP: If some of the individuals that you did paint were able to view your exhibit, what would you want them to take away or to feel?

ST: I would want people to feel proud of themselves. I want them to realize how important they are in American history. Because I think sometimes you can feel like, why am I doing this? Especially if you’re working, I spend a lot of time in retail and so sometimes you’re like, well, why am I doing this? I just keep going through the grind.I hope that if they were around, they would feel dignity and see the dignity that I created in the artworks.

NP: Could you tell me a little bit more of your experience at Falling Waterhouse (an artist residency Towns attended for two weeks during the creation of “Declaration and Resistance”), and how that shaped your exhibit? 

ST: Falling water was an opportunity for me to learn about the history of the house and about Elsie Henderson (a character Towns portrays in his exhibit). Sometimes you see cook, but she sort of helped run the house. When the family would come on the weekends, the sort of thing that I think that I didn’t realize is this was just like a weekend house. It was just amazing learning about the history of the house and actually being in space. I remember looking at this in history books and learning about Frank Lloyd Wright in class, and actually spending like two weeks or three weeks there just to be in the space, to be in those surroundings was very sort of eye opening and it’s, I mean, honestly, it’s a very conservative area, so there is a fear that happens for me being in those spaces too. So it’s like, it’s this sort of dual thing that I deal with being in there, the fear of being in that area against sort of the beauty of the area.

NP: How does it feel having your gallery in conservative states like Idaho?

ST: It’s been interesting because when you’re putting together a show like this, you shop it to different museums, and these were the museums that had the funds to do it and had the interest in creating the work and bringing the works there. It’s been interesting having the feedback, being in these conservative areas at first, I was afraid. I thought work would be damaged.I thought somebody would paint over something,  but then I was like, whoa, who am I. This is the area where people need to see this, and hopefully it’ll bring out a curiosity that wasn’t there before.

The exhibition will be at the Boise Art Museum until Sept. 18 with a general fee of $6.

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