The Hands of an Artist: Meet the minds behind the Henrietta Lack statue

Published: Feb. 3, 2023 at 7:28 AM EST
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - It has been almost two months since Roanoke City officials revealed plans for a statue to honor the legacy of Henrietta Lacks as a part of the Roanoke Hidden Histories project.

The two artists behind the concept sketch design and sculpting of the upcoming statue are hard at work, making make sure it is in tip-top shape before its reveal later this year.

They aren’t able to show the statue, but they are able to share their personal stories.

Who are the hands behind this work of art? And what are their stories?

Some say the hands and mind of an artist are the most important tools when it comes to bringing a story or an image to life

Roanoke artist Bryce Cobbs and Blacksburg-based sculptor Lawrence ‘Larry’ Bechtel say they found their artistic tools when they were children.

“It was my junior year of high school. I just, I’ve always been, like I said, I’ve always drawn and always love to draw, even in elementary school. I have pictures from my elementary school classes where I was drawing in my notebooks, all the projects where we had to do art,” said Cobbs. “I was the main person that really wanted to do all the drawings and stuff like that. So, I’ve been drawing for a long time.”

“Well, everything begins in childhood, I suppose. And my mother, who was a librarian, elementary school librarian, stressed creativity that for her was a virtue,” said Bechtel. “She was enthusiastic about anything I did that she felt was creative. So, I think I can say it started with her.”

The two men grew up with a heart to create and are inspired by different kinds of art.

“Kehinde Wiley is my favorite, favorite artist right now. He does realism, he paints; all his subjects are Black, and he paints Black subjects all the time. And I think that’s really, really important and really, really special because he puts Black people at the center of the subject and forces people to look and I think I really do respect that,” said Cobbs.

“That’s how I kind of want to approach my work because I want to force people to look at what I’m working on. Look what I’m painting not for a personal gratification feeling, but because I think that it’s important that it’s a story that needs to be told. And I have the ability to tell the story.”

“Thomas Jefferson, I came across the story of Isaac Jefferson, a slave of his, and was totally fascinated by that. So I did not only a bust of Jefferson but a bust of Isaac and that to really set me on a pathway,” said Bechtel.

Both the artists have unique ways of expressing the people and places they admire.

Bechtel believes in letting art speak for itself.

“This is what it’s all about, this, that’s all I need. So, I just ditched all of that stuff. And I love the idea of the book coming out of the book, the story coming alive like a genie,” said Bechtel.

“I painted my friends and some of my family members and also overlaid like a gold plant overtops of, or flower, and I don’t know if you can kind of see the reflection on the camera yet, and so I wanted to do something where from different angles or different views, you can kind of see a different picture,” said Cobbs.

But the real magic happens, in separate art studios miles apart.

“We are in my studio in Blacksburg and it’s a cozy little place, but it suits me fine. And this is where I do my sculpture work. And this is where I will be working,” said Bechtel.

Larry spends time creating and building each figure from the inside out as if they’re alive.

“I try to produce a physiological portrait, but also a psychological and emotional one,” said Bechtel.

He says it takes a while, many stages and tools, to build people from clay.

Like how it takes Bryce time to draw or paint an image on a page or canvas in his art studio.

“I like seeing the blank canvas because I know that is the endless possibilities for what could go on it,” said

Even though these two men create art in different ways, they’ve managed to paint and sculpt the stories of countless figures for people to appreciate across the nation.

“That’s what makes it fun for me-- knowing that this art can be seen and be experienced by a lot of different people, and kind of get it, open doors for you and open doors for others behind you. I think it’s just important to just realize how important what you’re doing really is,” said Cobbs.

Using their hands and minds, they’ve dedicated to creating a work of art.

“I love it all. But when I feel myself getting there, boy do I like that. That it’s just right there. I’m just right there. It’s not me or the sculpture. It’s just the work,” said Bechtel.

We will have an in-depth update on the Roanoke Hidden Histories project and the Henrietta Lacks statue Monday. WDBJ7 will sit down with the minds and leaders behind it all.

You can view more work from Larry Bechtel at the Montgomery County Museum of Art and History and on his website.

Bryce Cobbs has worked across Roanoke including the ‘End Racism Now” street mural located on Campbell Ave. directly past the Municipal building and courthouse. You can view more of his work on his website.