Meet the artist

    Helen Wilson-Roe is a self-taught artist from Bristol. Henrietta Lacks’s story fascinated Helen from the moment she heard about her in 1997. Find out more about her journey with the Henrietta's family. 

    Image: Helen Wilson-Roe and John Roe

    Having grown up in an era when few black heroes were celebrated, it seems unjust to Helen that so little is known about Henrietta, her impact on medical science and what became of her family.

    Artist Helen Wilson-Roe sitting in between two oil paintings of Lacks family members Helen with two portraits of Lacks family members. Image: Karen Brett

    What inspired you to begin this journey? 
    ‘When I read Henrietta’s story, I was heartbroken that this woman went completely unrecognised at the time and that the family were exploited. It was the exploitation that drove me as an artist. I thought, I really want to meet this family. 

    ‘I never let that go. I never thought I wasn’t going to meet the family. I just thought, how do I meet them?’ 

    Artist Helen Wilson-Roe sitting with Sheryle and Sonny Lacks outside their home in Baltimore, MarylandHelen with Sheryle and Sonny Lacks, outside their home in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Sonny is Henrietta’s second son. Image: John Roe

    Why tell Henrietta’s story in particular? 
    ‘I like to tell stories I believe our children would never have heard of and might not be documented in a way that should be accessible to them. 

    ‘I want them to grow up feeling a sense of pride that I didn’t really get. As a mixed-race child in predominantly white schools, I never heard any stories of black people who did well. I really want my kids to have access to these stories.’

    Over the next year, you’ll give the Lacks family 28 portraits. Why? 
    ‘It’s about the power of what you can do as an individual to make a difference in other people’s lives. You can give without having to give materialistically. You can give in other ways. 

    ‘It wasn’t premeditated. I didn’t go to America thinking this is what I’m going to do. It just came from a discussion, a heated talk, with the family one evening.’ 

    You normally create large-scale oil paintings. Why did you decide to explore a 3D form?
    ‘When I first saw the display case, I immediately thought, right, we’re not going to get paintings in there, so it’s going to have to be something 3D. 

    ‘My challenge was getting a very big idea, a massive story with multi-layers, into a contained space.’

    Helen priming polystyrene cells for paintingHelen priming the polystyrene cells for painting in her Bristol studio. Image: Helen Wilson-Roe and John Roe 

    Was that difficult? 
    ‘I had to scale down instead of scaling up. That doesn’t work that well with me, being the kind of artist I am – my largeness wants to come out. 

    ‘But constricting the space forced me to think of a different way of producing artwork, and I think it’s a really good way of challenging an artist.’ 

    Helen Wilson-Roe and Laurens Nockels in Who Am I? installing their displayHelen and Laurens Nockels installing their display in the Who Am I? gallery. Image: Science Museum London

    What do you hope visitors get from this? 
    ‘I want them to come away with a sense that Henrietta somehow touched their lives. 

    ‘I want them to come away with a sense of history, that in the 1950s this is what could have happened to you if you were black and went to hospital with cancer. 

    ‘This has opened up a lot of stories to me. Some of which, in regard to discrimination, racism, I find very personal. How far have we actually come? I find it difficult to accept that it’s actually not that far.’ 

    What next? 
    ‘I would love to spend a whole year just painting the Lacks family. There are other things I want to paint too. Not just portraits, but the experience, the various stories they’ve told me. And the cells! 

    ‘This “small” stage I’m going through – the portraiture – is going to be lovely. It’s kind of increasing my vision for massive, great big beautiful cells.’


    All videos excerpted from A Brush with Immortality (2013), created by Helen Wilson-Roe and John Roe.