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In paintings and quilts, the legacy of Black labor in America is on exhibit in Greensburg

The five coal miners gaze out from their portraits, each with a lamp affixed to his headgear. Each man is nearly life-sized, clearly standing underground, and with an American flag half-furled in the darkness behind him. And around each miner, seemingly unnoticed by him, flutter three golden canaries.

"Built of Rich Earth" painting by Stephen Towns
Westmoreland Museum of American Art
"Built of Rich Earth" is one of a series of paintings by Towns depicting coal-miners

The five mixed-media oil paintings have titles like “Built of Rich Earth” and “Underneath the Mountaintop.” They are striking, but among the most notable things about them is that these West Virginia miners are all Black men in a line of work that is — historically no less than today — seen as the province of white men.

And that’s exactly one of the points being made by artist Stephen Towns in “Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance,” his show of new work at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art. The exhibition of more than 40 colorful paintings and quilts celebrates the lives and legacy of Black laborers in U.S. history — not just coal miners of decades past, but also educators, field workers, nurses, soldiers, and more.

While the show honors a few famous figures, including Harriet Tubman, slave-revolt leader Nat Turner, and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, many of Towns’ images are based on archival photos of workers whose names and stories are lost to history. Most date from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. He depicts many of them as religious icons, for instance with gilt halos, like the saints in medieval paintings. And just as canaries attend the miners, butterflies hover about many of Towns’ other subjects — the artists’ symbols of spirituality on earth.

“It’s just a matter of venerating people, and venerating African Americans, because there has been a long history of negative imagery and I want to sort of switch that up and change that, and create a newer sort of positive narrative,” said Towns, a Baltimore-based artist who developed the show for the Westmoreland with Pittsburgh-based curator Kilolo Luckett.

Kilolo Luckett
Grace Roselli
Westmoreland Museum of American Art
Kilolo Luckett guest-curated the show for the museum

“He’s not only using archived source material but he’s also using his imagination and imbuing that into the work as well, which I feel like is such a magical special way of storytelling,” said Luckett on Wednesday, during a press preview of the exhibit. “He’s using both nonfiction and fiction in this mythical storytelling to weave these stories into these quilts and also painting these stories.”

While “Declaration & Resistance” spans much of the continent and more than two centuries of history, there’s a significant regional component, too. As he began work on the show, Luckett pointed Towns toward the Carnegie Museum of Art’s archive of images by famed photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, who spent decades documenting Black life in Pittsburgh. So in addition to those West Virginia miners, several of the paintings are based on Harris’s imagery. Towns even painted a portrait of Harris himself, sharing an armchair with a small white dog.

Another painting, “Ms. Elsie Henderson,” depicts the locally renowned cook employed by wealthy families like the Kaufmanns. But the late Henderson is depicted not as an older woman — she died last year, at 107 — but as a shyly smiling young lady lounging on lawn furniture in a stylish swim outfit. (That painting was one outcome of a 2021 artist residency Towns did at Fallingwater, the Kaufmann's famed weekend retreat.)

"Birth of a Nation" art installation by Stephen Towns
Joseph Martin Hyde
Westmoreland Museum of American Art
Towns' 2014 installation "Birth of a Nation" is also included in the show

Other historical figures depicted in the show include Ona Judge, who famously escaped enslavement by George and Martha Washington (while Washington was president), Black nationalist Marcus Garvey, and Susie King Taylor, a Black nursing pioneer in the Civil War era. Paintings based on photos include “Hair Lessons,” depicting women in a salon, and “The Steel Worker,” in which a Black reporter interviews a Black man on strike, holding a picket sign.

Towns, 42, is a soft-spoken native of small-town South Carolina. He studied painting at the University of South Carolina and taught himself quilting. He’s received press coverage nationally, in publications including the New York Times and the Washington Post; his best-known work is probably his 2014 installation “Birth of a Nation,” which depicts an enslaved Black woman nursing a white infant while standing before a large American flag, and is included in “Declaration & Resistance.” His series "Offerings" is included in "Reckoning," a new and ongoing group exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C.

Towns’ first solo museum exhibition, “Stephen Towns: Rumination and a Reckoning,” took place at the Baltimore Museum of Art. “Declaration & Resistance” is his largest solo show yet, but it grew out of a group exhibition Luckett curated in 2018 at Pittsburgh’s August Wilson African-American Cultural Center. Anne Kraybill had just started her new job as the Westmoreland’s executive director; she saw that show and started to look into Towns’ work, which she saw as a good fit with her museum’s specialty in scenes of industry and labor. (“Declaration & Resistance” was originally set to open a year ago, but was postponed because of the pandemic.)

Towns grew up in Lincolnville, S.C. a town founded in 1867 by formerly enslaved people, but he traces his interest in history to his time in Baltimore, when he began to read about that city’s troubled racial past. He dates his veneration for labor to his childhood: His mother worked in restaurants, and he sometimes accompanied his sisters on their rounds cleaning offices and the homes of the wealthy. Before becoming a full-time artist — just a few years ago — Town himself worked multiple jobs, in restaurants, retail, and offices.

While “Declaration & Resistance” takes its subject matter from the distant past, and asks us to consider everyone whose work "built this country," Towns said it reflects current events, too. For one, it challenges the widespread assumption (among white people, anyway) that the “working class” is white.

“Stephen is … digging into these archives to elevate these stories and shining light on ‘Yes, we exist too, as coal miners, as steel workers.’ And that’s so important,” said Luckett.

Towns also noted his consistent deployment of the American flag in his paintings and quilts. “I feel like the American flag has been weaponized for a lot of Black people in America,” he said, noting that Southern towns where the flag is widely displayed are places some Black people might not wish to linger. But in his art, he said, “I am embracing the flag, and I’m embracing my Americanness.”

“Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance” also includes “End of an Illusion,” a complementary exhibit featuring Teenie Harris photos and works by contemporary American photographer Carrie Mae Weems, quilt artist Gabriel Chery, 19th-century Black American landscape painter Robert S. Duncanson, and more.

The exhibit opens Sat., Jan. 22, and continues through May 8. Admission to the Westmoreland Museum is free. More information is here.