Jeffrey Kent paints the story of Henrietta Lacks
By Sofia Fortunato, contributor
Sofia Fortunato: Can you tell us about your background and why you became interested in incorporating science into the concepts of your art?
Jeffrey Kent: Initially a self-taught artist, I grew my practice for more than 15 years and then in 2008 decided to pursue an MFA. I was accepted into the Hoffberger School of Painting at Maryland Institute College of Art. There I met Sam Gilliam who taught me to utilize polymers with acrylic paint to form luster, layers, and depth. This technique took my artwork to another level: creating expressive action within a flat surface; not until a cell slide under a microscope.
Developing the Henrietta Lacks series began with general research into Henrietta’s story. I planned to paint an abstract series, and I was open to inspiration. As I culled the web for information and images of Henrietta Lacks, I came across many images of the HeLa cells and was fascinated by the use of fluorescent microscopic imagery. Digging deeper, watching interviews with researchers, medical doctors, and nurses, I found amazing high resolution videos of the cells in action, metastasizing, attacking and dividing. Wow! I was inspired to bring that amazing action to life on canvas, immortalizing the immortal.
SF: Tell us more about the process involved in the creation of your artwork - what is your studio practice like?
JK: As I continued my research learning more about cancer cells and how they operate, I decided to incorporate the images and actions from the videos in my quest to pay homage to the legacy of this Black woman's cells that continue to multiply; which is astonishing in so many facets within abstract painting. In thinking about how to approach this task, I desired to create impasto paintings that mimic the actions of cancer cells as they appear through a microscope. Not copying, or making portraits of the cells I found - instead these paintings are informed by my findings, and the multi-layered complexities of the story of the origin of the cells. It was important to me to make these action paintings with flow and color contrasts, just as I witnessed in the videos of the cells in action. To achieve my desired effects, I applied a series of layers of gel medium paint and polymers over many weeks or months for each painting. Often, I worked on several at a time, my live-work studio full of Henrietta Lacks’ cells - dividing on and on.
SF: When did your interest in Henrietta Lacks’ story arise, and how did it influence the creation of your series “Surface from Under the Microscope”?
JK: In 2011 I caught an interview with Harriett Washington on NPR, she was talking about her book, Medical Apartheid. Within that interview the story of Henrietta Lacks was brought up. And a few weeks later, an advisor of mine, who, come to think of it, was probably listening to the same interview I was, told me I should work on a series about Henrietta Lacks. Now a household
name in a growing number of communities, Henrietta Lacks was once a name only vaguely reminisced on Baltimore City stoops. Another story of local medical apartheid.
Those HeLa cells are unique because, unlike other cells, they survive. That’s a Baltimore story, survival. Survival, even in the face of immediate and constant erasure. Like my paintings and the HeLa cells themselves, Baltimore is always growing, always surviving, ready to thrive. This is a story I identify with, as an artist, as a Baltimore kid, as a Black American.
SF: How do scientists respond to your series? And the general public?
JK: I’ve been honored by the reaction of the science field. The first public exhibition of "Surface" took place in Howard University. Recently, the last of the series were exhibited at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). One piece now calls NAS home. This series has enjoyed a uniting of audiences in a way I had not initially dreamed - scientists, Baltimore City (including the ‘Projects’), the Art World; every person has found an attachment, interest, or reaction to this work. This is the epitome of the goal of my work.
Dr. Michael G. Bennett, Associate Research Professor in Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Assistant Director of the Center for Science and the Imagination, and the Risk Innovation Lab described the series as “...the most vital, timely, commensurate artwork to engage the saga of Henrietta Lacks” in his essay Cellscape Vistas for the NAS 2019-2020 exhibition catalog.
During an art talk at the NAS celebrating the opening of my exhibition, an expert in their field, focused on HeLa cells, commented that my paintings perfectly captured the movement and activity of the cells as she observed them through her microscopes and imaging instruments. This was the exact inspiration for the creative process for this series: the microscopic images of the cells in action, publicly accessible via YouTube from various sources, in part due to federally funded research dissemination standards.
The general public keeps asking me when Oprah is going to buy one of the pieces! Joking aside, people are happy this Baltimore story and others are being told, gaining traction, and people are listening and learning about how the (Black) citizens of this country live. The reception has been enthusiastic; which was especially apparent during Baltimore Light City 2019. Select paintings from the collection were digitally altered and animated and paired to an original music score by Peter Smith. We inserted short text slides that provided information about the legacy of Henrietta’s cells. Viewers almost always stayed to see the full video, a clip of which can be viewed here:
SF: What message would you like your audience to walk away with from experiencing “Surface from Under the Microscope” in the context of African-American history in the U.S.?
JK: Henrietta Lacks’ story is both all too common and unique - all too common in the way science has historically taken precedence over Black individuals and people; unique that the story was discovered and has enjoyed such enthusiasm recently. I’d like everyone to experience this series as an inspiration, a jumping off point to a didactic exploration of Black history and culture. Increasingly, we’ve been made aware of these types of stories in U.S. history, which means it is now upon us, as adults, to reeducate ourselves. I was inspired to continue my reeducation through Henrietta Lacks’ story. "Surface" can act as a gateway to knowledge.