Meet Bryce Cobbs, the Roanoke artist behind the Henrietta Lacks statue concept drawing

Cobbs’ drawing will be used as a reference to design the 6-foot bronze statue

Roanoke artist Bryce Cobbs says he's proud to be a part of history in the Star City. (Roanoke Valley Television RVTV)

Roanoke artist Bryce Cobbs couldn’t imagine a world without his craft.

He has been enamored with art since he was a little kid, spending most of his time sketching in his notebook and getting lost in his drawings. Now, he’s using his work to help raise awareness about a local figure whose story often goes untold: Henrietta Lacks, also known as the “Mother of Modern Medicine.”

As part of the Roanoke Hidden Histories project, Cobbs was tapped to create a preliminary drawing of Lacks that will be used as a reference by Blacksburg-based sculptor Larry Bechtel to design a 6-foot bronze statue. The statue will be placed in the Lacks Plaza, where a monument of Confederate general Robert. E Lee once stood.

Since the unveiling of the drawing, Cobbs has been pushed into the national spotlight, with the tremendous feat being featured in media outlets across the country, including the New York Times, NPR and several others.

Cobbs says being a part of the Roanoke Hidden Histories project is truly a blessing.

The initiative, led by former Roanoke Vice-Mayor Trish White-Boyd and the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, strives to shed a light on the “hidden histories of the African American experience in Roanoke.”

“To have this kind of responsibility is major to me because it just shows me how your craft will take you to places you never thought you would be.”

10 News sat down with Cobbs to learn more about his story and what keeps him going each day.

Who is Bryce Cobbs?

An integral part of who he is, art is a creative outlet that gives Cobbs the ability to speak his mind and express his truth, without having to use words.

“It means the world to me. That’s how I communicate. That’s how I express my creativity,” Cobbs explained. “It’s just kind of my response to everyday life. I don’t even know what I would be doing if it weren’t for art.”

Take a look at some of Bryce Cobbs's artwork. (Courtesy of Bryce Cobbs)

His love for art as a young boy has followed him well into adulthood, manifesting into a successful career.

The fervent creator has led and contributed to several well-known projects in the Star City, which include:

He was even sought out by award-winning rapper, Wale, to help design a cover for the 2019 album “Wow...That’s Crazy.”

Here's a look at some of Bryce Cobbs's artwork. (Courtesy of Bryce Cobbs)

Honoring Henrietta Lacks through art

When Cobbs was first chosen to design the Lacks statue, he was through the roof.

But even though he was excited, he was also nervous. The weight of the task at hand felt heavy on his shoulders. He wanted to make the community and Lacks’s family proud.

“I had never drafted something that would be used for a statue. Already, I felt like I had to be perfect.”

In the end, he refused to let his anxiety stand in the way of the opportunity, knowing that the life and legacy of Henrietta Lacks, of Roanoke, needed to be shared.

“A lot of people don’t know the story of Henrietta Lacks, and so I think that having this statue here, especially in the place that the old general Robert E. Lee monument was, is such an impactful, powerful statement,” Cobbs said.

He continued, saying, “No one is gonna walk past this statue and not wanna know who this is if they don’t know already. It’s gonna bring so much more attention to Roanoke, and it’s gonna bring so much more love into the community, knowing that we have a statue of a powerful Black woman right in the center of downtown Roanoke.”

HeLa Cells were the first line of immortal cells, or cells that never died and instead, grew indefinitely, doubling every 20 to 24 hours. The cells are still alive today. (WSLS 10/Associated Press)

When asked what his thought process was when creating the design, Cobbs responded with:

I wanted to draw her in a very distinguished pose. Arms crossed, head held high, reflecting what I understood to be representative of her character and legacy. I wanted the sketch to feel powerful and certain of itself, something that would invite viewers and onlookers to come closer and learn more about who this woman is standing before them.

Bryce Cobbs

After months of sketching, editing, erasing and sketching again, the concept drawing was finalized and ready for the unveiling ceremony. Lacks’s oldest son, Lawrence, her grandson, Ron, and Ben Crump, a nationally-known civil rights attorney representing the Lacks family, were all slated to attend.

Cobbs was anxious.

“I was so nervous. All those thoughts started coming to my head ... Like, ‘I hope when I reveal this nobody’s like ‘Oh, no.’ I hope that it’s perceived well.’”

When the curtain was pulled from the drawing, Cobb’s eyes quickly scanned the crowd before him, searching for reactions. He didn’t see one frown.

“Everyone was smiling and happy, and the family was smiling and happy, and there were tears of joy.”

Plans unveiled for new Henrietta Lacks statue

Seeing everyone’s joy was infectious, and he couldn’t help but smile himself.

“I’ve never had to have my art mean so much before. It was just a whole other experience,” he said, adding that he thanks God every day for blessing him with the opportunity to help others learn about the immortal life of Henrietta Lacks.

About the Author:

Jazmine Otey joined the 10 News team in February 2021.