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Triumph in the Face of Terror: African-American Spirituals and Stephen Towns

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I was raised and baptized in the Christian church and spent many a Sunday—all day—in those pews, so when I saw Stephen Towns’ latest quilt pieces that draw from African-American spirituals, I knew I wanted to talk with him about the Black church experience. And somewhat selfishly and simply, I was also grateful to speak with another Southerner. Originally from South Carolina, Towns was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, and it was not until he went to college that he visited a friend’s church and witnessed the unique Southern Christian tradition. I found it remarkable that some of Towns’ experiences in that church were like what I myself had witnessed in churches in Fort Worth, Texas, and Wynne, Arkansas. 

Towns created these quilts for A Songbook Remembered, his second solo exhibition with New York’s De Buck Gallery, as a healing ritual to process the surreality of 2020 and to connect with the spiritual realm that we remain tethered to through the duration of this global pandemic. The eight new quilted works contain imagery inspired by African-American spiritual songs, depicting scenes that are set between the late 1800s and early 1900s. Towns specifically sourced historical patterns and fabrics to reinforce the sense of time and history inherent in the works. 

Each of Towns’ quilts in this series is named after a different African-American spiritual song, the roots of which run deep in the Black church and in the Black southern art tradition as well. Spirituals carried messages, offered hope, summoned inspiration. They were songs of triumph that sometimes existed in the face of terror. I remember my mother telling me that enslaved people would sing certain anthems for generations—these messages of hope and spiritual redemption were passed down from fields to pulpits through the legacy of Black song.

 

Stephen Towns, Wade in the Water, 2020, Natural and synthetic fabric, polyester and cotton thread, crystal glass beads, 39 x 46 inches
Spirituals carried messages, offered hope, summoned inspiration. They were songs of triumph that sometimes existed in the face of terror.
Teri Henderson

This new quilt-based work was borne out of necessity in several ways. Trained as a painter, Towns started quilting six years ago with his Birth of a Nation series. At the start of the pandemic, the masks he used to keep himself safe from paint fumes were virtually sold out as American consumers stocked up on PPE. Like so many other creative individuals, Towns had to adapt, putting away the paint for the time being to focus on quilt-making for this show and using the materials that were readily available to him. The series began as a way to cope with sadness at the onset of the global pandemic and quarantine; it also involved processing his emotional response to the police violence and racial reckonings and protest that seemed to reach a fever pitch this summer after the extrajudicial killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. 

For Towns, quilting became a kind of spiritual practice, a ritual and healing balm available for him in Baltimore rather than Gilead. With each methodical stitch, he rhythmically enforced the legacy of African-American men and women who sang spirituals to cope with the evils of daily life. His quilts exist as beacons, transmitting and echoing songs of freedom, joy, pain, sadness, loneliness, and above all, hope. Encountering A Songbook Remembered in the De Buck Gallery online viewing room, I was taken to church. Accompanying each piece is an audio recording of Towns discussing the stories within the songs that inspired the quilt. With each click and scroll, as my eyes traveled across the screen and discovered each quilted piece, I had the spiritual experience of my soul being filled with joy. Any longing or loneliness I felt was assuaged and replaced with veneration and stillness and calm.

My favorite piece, “Deep River,” shows two Black figures swimming through strips of waves of various shades of turquoise and blue. One figure holds a net as they both swim towards a boat at the top right of the frame. The two figures are surrounded by fish, a common symbol in Towns’ work with a strong connection to the Christian faith as well. Towns describes this piece as illustrating the idea of crossing the river of Jordan, from troubled waters over to a safer space. Water is another common symbol in Christianity. It has healing and transformational powers—I was baptized in water in a church, the idea being that the water washed away my sins and impurities, and then I emerged as a new person closer to God. The two figures in “Deep River” are suspended in a collage of quilted water, which feels like a sign of both comfort and spiritual renewal. 

 

Stephen Towns, Deep River, 2020, Natural and synthetic fabric, polyester and cotton, thread, crystal, glass beads, cowrie shells, 39 x 48.5 inches
All the news was bad. So I had to find a way to feel good, and with these spirituals, I was able to find a new language to overcome these obstacles.
Stephen Towns

Teri Henderson: I know you’re in Baltimore now, but you’re from South Carolina.

Stephen Towns: Yeah, originally from a small town called Lincolnville, it’s maybe 40 minutes outside of Charleston.

I’m from Texas, and I’m extremely interested in your migration from the South up here. I recognize that a lot of those roots and that migration are reflected in your work. How did you end up where you are geographically?

It was the economic crash of 2008, 2009. It was the same stuff that was sort of going on now, but without the virus. I was working at a medical university and lost my job and there were no prospects for jobs in South Carolina, so I came up here [to the Mid-Atlantic]. I stayed with a friend in DC for a while. Then I stayed with my sister for a year here, and I was unemployed for about a year and a half, doing temp jobs. And then I got a job at MICA in their Office of Community Engagement. I ran a grants program and I worked with students, faculty, and staff members that were doing community projects. That’s how I came to Baltimore. 

When you came here initially, were you painting/making art full-time?

Not full-time. When I stayed with my sister I would make work in their garage. But before I came here I was making art part-time, it was never full-time. I always had a full-time job and was making work on the side. These past two years have been sort of the first time that I’ve been able to do it full-time and put my focus on my work and the whole process. It’s been exciting.

The first time I saw your work in real life was the Rumination and a Reckoning show at the Baltimore Museum of Art. I’d been in Baltimore since 2016, that show was in 2018, and it was the first time I had seen work here that felt more familiar to me. It resonated with me—it was very Black, very Southern, and I loved the elements of the Black church. So I wanted to talk about how Southern culture and Black church traditions are illustrated in your new show, A Songbook Remembered. 

The funny thing is that I didn’t have the Black Southern church experience. I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. There’s no holidays and the concept of Jesus is a little bit different. When I went to college in the late ’90s and early 2000s, that’s when I started that journey of visiting different churches. And that was when I was finally away from home and I could explore the church experience, and it was a Black church experience. In the beginning, to be completely honest, it was scary for me. That was the first time I saw collection plates and people falling on the floor catching the Holy Ghost. It was scary and that was the first time that religion felt like magic. 

When you grow up as a Jehovah’s Witness, a lot of the focus is on God and not on you. And on the importance of being a human being, one of God’s beings, instead of God being this big figure. So, when I started making work, I started by painting Black people with gold halos. It was to show the godliness and the beautifulness inside of us. I started with searching and exploring through that. 

It evolved from that in just going through all the troubles of 2020, like being depressed and unable to make work. All the news was bad. So I had to find a way to feel good, and with these spirituals, I was able to find a new language to overcome these obstacles. Because, I mean, if people can come from slavery and overcome those obstacles, then I could overcome these things through 2020 because I came from those people. 

 

I remember being in church and seeing people falling out or catching the Holy Ghost and I also remember being scared. I remember thinking “What is happening?” and feeling strange because I don’t think that experience happened to me directly in particular. Especially if you are unfamiliar, it can appear very strange that these things are happening. But I love how you said that you thought that was the first time religion looked like magic for you, because yes, that’s what it is. 

My first Black church experience in college was one of my friends taking me to her Holiness church. The college I went to was sort of in the backwoods of South Carolina, so we went to a backwoods Holiness church—and I don’t know if you’re familiar with Holiness churches, but the congregation sometimes does the full-on “speaking in tongues,” the women walking around with a white cloth and laying down, all of that. All of that happening around me, it was like sensory overload. And then the pastor kept asking people to come up, and I was afraid because I didn’t know what was happening. My friend told me that someone said that he could tell people what they were thinking, and I didn’t want him to know my secrets. 

One of my friends said that when the preacher laid his hands on her, he was talking to her and telling her what she was dreaming. And I was like, “Oh, it is magic.” 

It’s interesting how those traditions travel for Black people across the country. I didn’t know the name of that church denomination in South Carolina, but all of that stuff happened in my church in Texas. Do you have a church or spiritual practice now?

No. I mean, I’m one of those people that says, “I don’t go to church. I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” I have things that I read when I need to read them. I don’t read them all the time. I say a little prayer when I need to say a little prayer. I don’t pray at every meal. When I need to meditate, I meditate. I don’t do it every day. I feel like my religious practice right now is just the making of the art. Since I don’t make art that’s very process-oriented, my work is slow, and it’s sort of meditation for me.

That is your ritual. What has your artistic practice included this year? Have you been quilting and painting?  

This year it’s mostly been quilting. It’s been sort of a new medium. It was the thing I could get and use, because a lot of the times when I’m painting I need a mask, I need gloves, I need all of that stuff, and all of that stuff ran out during COVID, so I couldn’t buy the things that I needed for my painting. So I had to do a lot of quilting because a lot of the PPE and the stuff that I needed I couldn’t find. And then it all raised in price and it was very expensive. Now I’ll be able to paint and use the equipment that I used to use, because now you can find some of that stuff in the store, but before you couldn’t find that stuff earlier during quarantine because it was all being snatched up.

[Image: Stephen Towns, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, 2020, Natural and synthetic fabric, polyester, cotton thread, crystals, 50.25 x 41.5 inches]

 

Stephen Towns, Somebody’s Knocking at Your Door, 2020, Natural and synthetic fabric, polyester and cotton thread, crystal glass beads, 39 x 48.5 inches
When that [fabric] comes in, I will say a prayer for that person and thank that person, because they didn't know that throughout their life, they were getting the materials just for me to make this work.
Stephen Towns

When did you start working on A Songbook Remembered?

Sometime in June. There was a period right when COVID started where I just stopped working just because the news was bad, and I was depressed. I could not get myself to make work. And then A Songbook Remembered was this body of work with this new sort of thinking that motivated me to start working again. Which is good. It was the spirituals that helped me through this time.

What is your favorite spiritual?

“Wade In The Water” is very common and there are so many versions of it. But I love the song “Deep River,” especially the melody. There’s a famous recording that Marian Anderson does at either the Lincoln Center or Lincoln Memorial. That melody is one of my favorite ones. 

What are some of the most common symbols or references in your work? 

I always use a lot of fish. They represent Jesus [for example, in the Biblical story where he performed a miracle of feeding the multitudes with five loaves of bread and two fish]. I remember in the early 2000s, the Christians always had those fish necklaces, they had the fish bumper stickers, the rings. A lot of times, the way I’m thinking about my composition, I use triangles. Triangles are sort of, for me, representing the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. A lot of times when you see that in my work or notice it, it’s not overt until I tell people, and then they’re like, “Oh, I see the triangles.” I incorporate them a lot into my work.

What are some of the source historical patterns or fabrics that you use in the show?

A lot of it just comes from my stash and then a lot of it comes from this store called SCRAP Creative Reuse that I shop at for used fabrics. Because they have become so familiar with me, they can become familiar with my style, and if somebody comes in, they may say, “Oh, we have something that was just donated. You might like it.” Since I am doing work in a particular style, a lot of the patterns that I try to get are not really available now. So I rely often on things that people give away and things that I can find in estate sales and stuff. This sort of goes back to praying—it’s sort of morbid, but a lot of this relies on people dying. Somebody’s grandma or meemaw dies and they have this fabric stash and they donate it because they don’t know what is going to happen. A lot of times when that stuff comes in, I will say a prayer for that person and thank that person, because they didn’t know that throughout their life, they were getting the materials just for me to make this work.

Thank you. That’s deep. I’m interested in your pursuit of quilting and how it’s similar to and different from painting, not just about incorporating colors and patterns, but how it changes the language of your work through the material. Are there any different messages when it’s a quilt versus when it’s an oil painting?

Before I started quilting, most of my work was portraits and about getting the likeness of the person that I’m painting. I always said I could never do an abstract painting because I was always focused on realism. Since I have been doing quilting I’ve had to sort of think abstractly. I think about our shapes and how these shapes go together. And I’m at the mercy of the fabric because I don’t dye fabric. I don’t have the time. I’m at the mercy of the materials that I have. So it’s creating a language out of the materials that are given to me and interpreting those pieces and those patterns into my own language and creating a dialogue with each piece of fabric that I collect.

What is the show about? 

It’s basically going back to spirituals, and finding the hope and resilience in spirituals, and creating a language for how to navigate 2020 and all of the troubles of 2020. The thing I read about spirituals is that they were used as protest. They could be religious or they could be used as protest songs, these songs of being free and people singing who weren’t free. All of this [making this body of work] took place during the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. So all of that stuff was being processed in this work when I was making it.

 

Stephen Towns, Little David Play on Your Harp, 2020, Natural and synthetic fabric, polyester and cotton thread, crystal glass beads, glass and resin buttons, 40.5 x 49 inches

I know that historical figures like Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman had previously shown up in your work. Are any of them depicted in this series?

In the piece “Go Down Moses”—it’s the piece with the woman basically as Moses parting the Red Sea—that’s me using Harriet Tubman as Moses, because she was called Moses. She just keeps coming up in my work. I’ve been able to read about her and learn about her life. I’ve seen things that happened in her life sort of happening now and the important things that she helped change. She is such an important figure in history. 

Growing up I always just heard “Harriet Tubman freed the slaves on the underground railroad.” And that was the extent that my Texas public education got me. But now that I’m an adult, I understand how incredible and powerful she was. How much mental willpower she had, how many lives she saved? How! There was no electricity, that’s the thing I always think about!  

People hate it when I say this, but every time I go on a nature walk and I’m like, “I can’t believe people walked through these places by themselves during slavery.” And people are like, “Well, can you stop talking about slavery every time I’m in the woods?” I am amazed that people found their way. 

How did they see? Or when it’s cold, I’m like, how did people not have heating and air conditioning when it’s hot? How did Black people survive through these things? Especially here in Baltimore or in Texas.

I did a project about the WPA, the Works Project Administration, and they collected stories of people who were formerly enslaved. They did this in the ’30s. And a lot of those stories I was reading about were in Galveston, Texas, and other parts of Texas. And it was just like, whoa, some of the things that these people went through, it was like, what in the world? And then thinking about, like you said, the weather conditions that they were going through while they were experiencing all these things… it’s a miracle.

[Image: Stephen Towns, Go Down Moses, 2020, Natural and synthetic fabric, polyester and cotton thread, crystal glass beads, metal buttons, 49 x 38 inches]

 

It is a miracle, it’s that simple. What else are you working on and how do you want your 2021 to go? If we survive *knocks on wood*—if our mental health is still intact, because I am struggling [both laugh]. So if we get there, to 2021, what would you like it to look like for you and your practice?

I just want to be able to paint and quilt again. Which I will be able to. I just finished five new quilts to exhibit at the Untitled Art Fair in Miami. I am going to have a museum exhibition in 2022 and all of that is about Black labor in the United States, so I’ll begin finishing some of the work for that show. Because I spent so much of 2020 making quilts, I’ve learned so many things, some new techniques, so I hope I’ll incorporate some of that stuff in my paintings and quilts in 2021. I’m really excited.

I just finished a project of quilts about Anna Murray Douglass. She was Frederick Douglass’ first wife. His first wife was Black, his second wife was white. He met Anna when he was enslaved here in Baltimore. He was working down in Fells Point at the shipyard. She was born free, and I think she was born free on the Eastern Shore, and she came to Baltimore and she was doing domestic work, but she actually worked and raised money for him to escape to New York. That’s how he went to New York and married her. She sewed his sailor’s outfit, which was the disguise that he wore to escape to New York.

So they got married, they moved around, and she had five children with him. But she spent her whole life sort of being in the background. He was as successful as he was because he had a Black woman behind him, but he was a terrible husband. He would always be hanging around white women, and he had this white woman that he would bring to their house every summer. That was probably because he was having an affair with her. Anna was not happy with her, and because Anna was taking care of the house and she took pride in taking care of it all, she would have to take care of this white woman every summer that her husband was having an affair with.

I think the thing that we don’t think of is Frederick Douglass was sort of like a basketball player in that he was very charismatic, he was good looking at the time, he had these women all over him. You have to put him in that context and put [Anna]  in that context. She died and the reason that he was able to have as much money as he had and marry his second wife was that Anna helped make sure he saved the money that they each needed to save to have a successful life. She died unknown and her daughter wrote a biography about her. 

The thing is, when you learn that, that does not diminish his importance. Without him, we would not be here. He is still one of the most important figures in the emancipation of Black people, despite all of that. And when you learn these things, you have to live with that. As a 20-year-old, I would not have been able to decipher that. But as an adult, it’s like, okay, he’s an imperfect person. And that’s really the hard thing: How do you allow somebody to still be a human and make a mistake?

Right, how far is grace extended? Were you able to see A Songbook Remembered in person? 

Yes, we went up to NYC when they announced that Biden had won and it was such a happy weekend. They announced that and people were screaming in the streets. There were honking horns. There were people running, walking down the street, carrying flags the whole day. And the weather was just unusually warm. It was like a spring day. That whole weekend was like magic because that was the first time that everybody in a city was happy. It was like being in Oz,  the house landed on the witch and everybody was happy.

[Image: Stephen Towns, Mary Had a Baby, 2020, Natural and synthetic fabric, polyester and cotton thread, crystal glass and resin beads, metal button, 47 x 36.75 inches]

 

A Songbook Remembered at De Buck Gallery, courtesy of the gallery

*****

Header image: Stephen Towns, Crucifixion, 2020, Natural and synthetic fabric, polyester and cotton thread, crystal glass and resin beads, resin buttons, 40.25 x 46.75 inches.

The online viewing room for A Songbook Remembered remains open through November 28th. Towns’ work will also be included in De Buck Gallery’s online viewing room for UNTITLED Art Fair. As we transition into this strange holiday season where so many of us remain in isolation and shrouded in loneliness, seeking virtual intimacy, perhaps you will take the time to explore the spiritually resonating work of Stephen Towns. 

 

Exhibition images courtesy of De Buck Gallery. Art images courtesy of the artist and De Buck Gallery.

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