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Community Spotlight: Examining the American Dream through the Lives of Black Americans

By January 28, 2022February 9th, 2022Blog

By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer   |   Image: Stephen Towns in his studio by Jermaine Táron Bell

Community Spotlight

The Community Spotlight series features Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations whose work contributes to the vibrancy of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance exhibition opens at The Westmoreland Museum of American Art

The work of Stephen Towns is a metallic-infused, gold halo-topped bright light shining out of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a way that is both reverent and celebratory, the mixed-media artist elevates laborers and hidden figures from a historical timeline in this exhibition that weaves a connection to current events.

Southwestern Pennsylvania is no stranger to this pull of history on the present day. Pittsburgh and the stretches of land along the three rivers that define the area are well known as a blue-collar region that is deeply ingrained with the history of industry and labor movements. The Westmoreland Museum of American Art’s newest exhibition aims to elevate one aspect of this collective history that shines a light where it isn’t often cast.

Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance, which opens on Sunday, January 30 and remains on view through May 8, features newly created work by the artist, including over 30 new figurative paintings and story quilts. 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.

A Black woman and A black man stand in front of the wall with text labeling the exhibition. He is holding his hands up as he speaks.

Curator Kilolo Luckett and artist Stephen Towns lead a walk though of the exhibition during a press preview on Wednesday, January 26, 2022.

“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. 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,” indicated Towns.

Two mixed-media images of coal miners

Two portraits by Stephen Towns from the Coal Miners series, which features six coal miners from West Virginia. The figures are surrounded by black mica to symbolize the mines. The flags represent the miners’ dedication to the American promise of a better life. Ancestral spirits in the form of yellow canaries protect each miner from the toxic conditions and constant threat of injury or death. Stephen Towns (b. 1980), “After the Shift,” 2020, and “Underneath the Mountaintop,” 2020. Oil, acrylic, fabric, buttons, Bristol paper, mica flakes, graphite, glitter, and charcoal on panel, 40 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and De Buck Gallery, New York, NY and a private collection, respectively.

The exhibition expands on the historical narratives of enslaved and free people who toiled under extreme hardships. Through acts of rebellion, courage, guile, and determination, they persevered. They are deftly portrayed here by Towns, whose use of color, pattern, and choice of materials radiates the character of these individuals, reaching beyond the scope of their trials to imbue their triumphs. Towns explores these stories in his painting and quilts, often creating a series of work reflecting a type of industry. Many of the featured artworks depict arduous trades often associated with historic roles, including coal mining and agricultural and domestic labor. However, he has also crafted images that highlight care and nurturing, such as nursing—a theme that the artist felt was important to pursue as he created new works during the COVID-19 pandemic, works that highlight the racial disparities that continue to plague the country.

“This is my most ambitious project yet,” said Towns. “I want this show to be a celebration,” noting how repeated motifs in his work exude this vibrancy. “For me, the butterflies represent spirituality . . . flowers emanate joy.”

A black woman looks at acolorful painting of a black woman.

Curator Kilolo Luckett discusses the leisurely nature of the subject in Stephen Towns painting “Ms. Elsie Henderson,” 2021. Ms. Henderson worked for the Kaufmann family. Luckett noted how you imagine the source image having been taken poolside near the Fallingwater residence. Courtesy of the Artist and De Buck Gallery, New York, NY.

Guest curator Kilolo Luckett is a Pittsburgh-based art historian and curator. She is the founding executive director and chief curator of Alma|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. 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,” Luckett stated.

Accentuating Towns’s work, an adjoining gallery holds a collection of work by other artists in similar media. Notes Luckett, “It was important to put Stephen in the context of a broader range of artists.” This gallery, titled End of an Illusion, features nearly 30 pieces of art and draws connections between the work of Towns and those who have preceded him. Other artworks include pieces by Thomas Doughty, the first American artist to work exclusively as a landscapist; Master of San Sepolcro’s Angel with Crown of Thorns and Spear, a circa 1330 painting on loan from the Frick Art Museum; a collection of Charles H. “Teenie” Harris images; and work by Joshua Johnson, the earliest African American known to have made a career for himself as an artist.

Stephen Towns (b. 1980), Mary McLeod Bethune, 2021, Natural and synthetic fabric, polyester and cotton thread, crystal glass beads, metal and resin buttons, 43.5 x 64 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and De Buck Gallery, New York, NY.

The Breadth and Depth of American Art

The Westmoreland Museum of American Art, located in Greensburg about 45 minutes east of Pittsburgh, is the only museum dedicated to American Art in western Pennsylvania. Its permanent collection highlights the breadth and depth of American art, with a strong focus on the art and artists of southwestern Pennsylvania.

“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 multimedia and textile works. 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,” commented Anne Kraybill, The Richard M. Scaife Director / CEO of The Westmoreland.

Declaration & Resistance was funded in part by Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program, which is dedicated to uplifting projects that define our region’s cultural and industrial heritage.

“Funding made possible to present this exhibition shines a light on the importance of the state providing support for these Mini-Grants and the partners like Rivers of Steel who administer them,” says Rhonda Madden, Director of Advancement at the museum.

“The works of Stephen Towns are an absolute treasure—and the exhibition a must-see experience,” adds Carly V. McCoy, director of marketing and communications for Rivers of Steel. “It’s an honor to support a project like this. Rivers of Steel was founded by the desire to preserve the stories and the culture of our region’s workers. The Declaration & Resistance exhibition is presented in that spirit, connecting our present day and with an understanding of the past. Stephen’s work offers viewers a chance to understand his carefully selected subjects in a new way and, in this case, take joy from them.”

“Scenes of industry are well known at The Westmoreland and reflect a key time in our region’s history,” says Madden. “The Stephen Towns exhibition enriches this story and highlights the important contributions of Black laborers.”

Visiting The Westmoreland

The Museum’s operating hours are Wednesday–Sunday from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. General admission to the museum is free with advanced registration. Visit thewestmoreland.org for more information.

Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance will travel to the Boise Art Museum in Boise, Idaho, in the summer of 2022 and to the Reynolda House Museum of Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in winter of 2023.

Visitors to the exhibition will also want to make sure they view the adjacent exhibition, Cultivation: Journey of the Work by quilter Tina Williams Brew, which examines the artist’s 40-year journey of self-discovery, teaching, and linkages to cultures not always found in the history books.

About the Exhibition

Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance is generously supported by Eden Hall Foundation; The Heinz Endowments; Hillman Exhibition Fund of The Westmoreland Museum of American Art; Arts, Equity, & Education Fund; National Endowment for the Arts; and De Buck Gallery.

Additional funding was provided in part by a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Recreation and Conservation, Environmental Stewardship Fund, administered by Rivers of Steel.

About the Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is one of twelve supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Funding is provided via DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Environmental Stewardship Fund to Rivers of Steel, which administers the Mini-Grant program. The Westmoreland Museum of American Art is one of six organizations who received Mini-Grant funding through this program in 2021.

Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.  

If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, read Gita’s recent article about Center of Life’s collaboration at the Hazelwood Green.

If you’re interested in learning more about Black labor in southwestern Pennsylvania, check out John Hughey & the Legacy of Black Workers at the Carrie Furnaces by Ryan Henderson.