The mesmerizing recent work of painter and textile artist Stephen Towns welcomes interaction and introspection at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, the last stop of the Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance exhibition tour. This exhibition pulsates with power as it ponders the American dream and expands the historical narrative of African Americans who persevered through the enslavement, convict leasing, and other hardships that significantly contributed to the development of the American economy. Exploring the lives of African Americans from the late eighteenth century to the present day, Towns emphasizes their resistance and resilience in poignant multi-media paintings and exquisitely crafted story quilts.

This impressive body of work is extraordinarily striking in its ability to transport the viewer into each individual story. Each story demands recognition, unfolding in its own time. However, one is not separate from but adjacent to the other works in the gallery, and to the innumerable overlapping stories in history. The Pioneer (2020) and the other five mixed-media paintings in The Coal Miners series depict haunting, yet hopeful portraits of West Virginia miners in the early 1900s. The Bakers (2021) illustrates two men in the kitchen, rolling dough and consulting a cookbook, who represent a generation that was afforded greater opportunities in American society due to the resistance that resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Carolina Gold (2021) and the other painted and quilted landscapes of labor juxtapose luscious natural scenery with laborers whose emotions and attitudes vary from stoicism to defiance. I am the Glory (2020), a radiant portrait of a Black woman sewing a vibrant quilt, evinces the strong symbolism that permeates the entire exhibition. As the yellow canaries in The Coal Miners series communicate protection, the butterflies encircling the subject of I am the Glory (2020) reference freedom. This thread of freedom, often twisted with hope, protection, and resilience, stitches these works of art together. While each work of art is compelling on its own, their resonance is exponentially increased when they communicate these instances of hope and efforts toward freedom in unison.

Towns’ work exudes an incredible, enviable cohesion visually across mediums and conceptually through thematic sections. From the deep, rich colors to the dazzling elements of copper leaf and crystal glass beads applied to layers of paint and fabric, a sense of physical materiality and a metaphorical notion of the invisible being made visible and tangible sweeps through the gallery. The artist’s illustrated stories are deliciously unrestrained, encouraging imaginative trails of thought and fervent celebration of the subjects. As I stood in front of Marcus Garvey (2021) and Ona Judge Escapes (2021), a desire to be transported into the story quilts arose within me. I wished to fall into the embellished fabric, feel the tension of the moment, and truly understand the stories of the Pan-Africanism movement pioneer Marcus Garvey and Martha Washington’s personal maid Ona Judge. It seems that this experiential quality of Towns’ work is rooted in its inventive existence within the intersection of oral history, archival research, and artistic storytelling. He consults historical materials, including photographs, for his artwork; examples of his source material, along with textile swatches and other studies, are displayed in cases throughout the gallery. Many images inspired individual works of art. For example, upon finding a photograph of Flora Pledger and Lillie Hamlin in the Reynolda Archives during his research in Winston-Salem in the summer of 2022, the artist created Flora and Lillie (2022), a captivating portrait of the two women in acrylic, oil, and metal leaf on panel for the Reynolda House’s installation of the exhibition. Infusing history into his creative process, Towns becomes a visual storyteller. His mesmerizing artwork centralizes and celebrates the lives of African Americans so often discarded to the margins of history books despite their irreplaceable roles in building the United States’ economy, emboldening the country to embody the tenets of the Declaration of Independence, and ultimately exemplifying the power of love and hope in the shadows of toil.

Beyond the works of art themselves and their accompanying wall text, Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance invites the viewer to ruminate on the meaning of freedom and the legacy of white supremacy in our contemporary moment. Supplemented with a film documentary by Njaimeh Njie, a small library of recommended reading materials including Nikole Hannah-JonesThe 1619 Project, and an interactive wall of handwritten responses to questions and prompts connecting the exhibition to personal experiences of freedom (“Share a time when you stood up for something you believed in”), Towns’ artwork lends itself to introspective growth and contemplation. I particularly applaud the provision of a book list – when I experience such riveting artwork, I am always eager to trace the artist’s steps back to where they find their inspiration.

Well organized in layout and seamlessly installed by preparator Shane Carrico, assistant collections manager Caroline Gallagher, collections manager Katie Womack, and assistant preparator Blake Woodruff, Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance is a space for wandering, for taking one’s time, and for learning. I navigated the gallery space in a fragmented way, observing and becoming absorbed in various school tour groups. To myself, I began answering the docents’ questions. Do you know who created the first official U.S. flag? What happened in 1619? What does freedom mean to you? What do you think these butterflies symbolize? As I reflect on my experience, I realize that I deviated from the cognitive, critical perspective that I often assume in art spaces – where, due to my art history education, I engage in visual analysis and contemplate the nuance of curatorial decisions – and instead fell into an experiential, learning perspective where the power of storytelling swells and I listen for what the art says, not what I think the art should say.

Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance is on view in the Mary and Charlie Babcock Wing Gallery of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art through Sunday, May 14. For more details on this exhibition, please view the sidebar.

And, during your visit to the Reynolda House, do not forget to reserve time to explore the American art on view in the historic house as well as the gardens and grounds. Many of the Reynolda House’s bedrooms have been converted into small gallery spaces for temporary exhibitions. Still I Rise: The Black Experience at Reynolda, on display in the Master Bedroom Gallery, delves into the complicated history of Reynolda, creating a wonderful dialogue with the Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance exhibition.

On Sunday, March 19, the museum will present a musical performance by Mary D. Williams inspired by Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance for Reynolda On the House. On Saturday, April 29, the museum will host a Community Day of performances and programming connected to the exhibition. Free admission to the museum will be offered on both dates.

Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance is organized and toured by the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania with guest curator Kilolo Luckett.