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Stephen Towns Spotlights Workers At Bottom Of America’s Economic Ladder

Stephen Towns works for a living, but not like he used to. His deeply researched art practice demands time, dedication and energy, what it doesn’t require is punching a timeclock, standing for hours or the tedium of other jobs he’s held.

Towns has worked in a factory. He’s worked at IHOP. He’s worked in a hospital stocking surgical equipment for operating rooms.

His background makes him the perfect conduit through which to regard people working at the bottom of America’s economic ladder insightfully, honorably and with empathy. “Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance,” on view through May 8 at The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greenburg, PA, does that, using labor as a backdrop for examining the American dream through the lives of Blacks.

“Initially, the show was going to take on a much heavier done, and then during Coronavirus, I wanted to make sure the show was more celebratory and that we pay attention more to essential workers,” Towns (b. 1980, Lincolnville, S.C.) told Forbes.com. “I definitely felt the plight of people having to go to work in a time when everyone else got to stay home, and I was one of those people who got to stay home because I work for myself now.”

That wasn’t always the case. Growing up the youngest of 11 children on the outskirts of Charleston, S.C. with a father who worked in construction and a mother who was a domestic worker, the make your own rules lifestyle of an artist he now lives was utterly unknown. In the Towns family, you worked for a living. Hard.

Jobs weren’t meant to offer fulfilment or excitement, travel, a creative outlet. They were misery as often as anything else. Hot. Heavy. Boring. Their only value the paycheck every two weeks. A small one at that.

But you worked. And there’s a dignity in any labor no matter how menial.

These realities and this understanding shared by all working people are the special sauce inherit in Towns’ artworks which give them such personality.

“When you’re working in those positions you can feel disrespected by the people that you’re working for or the people that you’re offering service to, so it was very important for me to tell those stories because I’ve been that person,” Towns said.

Working in series, Towns explores industries such as coal mining, agriculture and domestic labor, as well as labor that highlights care and nurturing such as nursing, a theme he felt was important to pursue as he created new work during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting the racial disparities that continue plaguing the country.

The “Coal Miners” series features Black miners of West Virginia who were relegated to the most difficult, underpaid, most dangerous and insecure jobs.

“When you’re in a mine, you’re all covered in soot, but as soon as you came out, everybody became segregated,” Towns said. “The mine owners would have separate sections for the Blacks, for the Europeans, Italians and for the white Anglo Saxons. The divisions that were created through these coal mining companies mimicked the divisions that capitalism has created in the United States. The power of money and economics can really divide a people when we should be together.”

Towns has always undertaken extensive study on the subjects he depicts which, throughout his career, have tended to focus on the Civil War era. For his newest work, he sought to expand beyond that period and picture people who transitioned from slavery to laborer.

Paintings in the “Cooks” series call attention to the hidden figures who helped shape American cuisine. Among these are Elsie Henderson who worked for several wealthy Pittsburgh families including the Kaufmanns, owners of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Fallingwater. To research Henderson, Towns took a residency at Fallingwater. He went through the archives and talked to people who worked there with her.

Henderson died in March of 2021 at the age of 107. Towns was unable to meet her due to Covid restrictions.

Towns pays tribute to Ona Judge, a formerly enslaved servant and escapee from President George Washington’s plantation. Judge was an invaluable seamstress and body servant to Martha Washington, who as a teenager escaped Mount Vernon and fled to New England.

He examined the Teenie Harris archive at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum to research the prominent photographer who chronicled Black life there during the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

Despite his study, Towns is quick to remind he’s not a documentarian.  

“I’m an artist, I’m not a historian, everything you see may not be historically accurate, but I went through a lot of trouble with finding the color of what clothes would be in a certain time period or what the interior of a building would look like based on stuff you’d find in an antique gift shop or looking at antique clothing–a lot of that went into the work,” he said.

For the Westmoreland, located 30 miles east of Pittsburgh’s steel mills and on the doorstep of coal country–two of the nation’s most historically back-breaking, sweaty, dangerous, industries–an exhibition centering labor proves a perfect fit.

“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,” Anne Kraybill, The Richard M. Scaife Director/CEO of The Westmoreland, said. “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.”

Stories that, despite their humility, have earned prominent telling.

“I’ve done a lot of (art)work around Black people and slavery and some of the criticism I’ve gotten from other Black people is that I don’t focus enough on the kings and queens or very valuable, important people,” Towns said. “There is a narrative that we come from kings and queens, but I probably didn’t come from a king or a queen, I probably came from a laborer that was captured and sold into slavery and there is just as much importance in the people in the background as there is in the people on the top.”

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