Beyond the face: Portrait tells the story of activist planner Henry Taylor

A portrait of UB urban planning professor Henry Louis Taylor Jr. tells the story behind his work to advance health and wellness in Buffalo. Taylor is among several community health advocates featured in "The Future of Health in the City" exhibit. Image courtesy of Charmaine Wheatley.

UB urban planning professor Henry Louis Taylor Jr. is among several advocates for community health in Buffalo whose portraits are featured in "The Future of Health in the City" exhibit. Photo courtesy of Henry Taylor

by Tyler Madell

Published October 17, 2019


The words cascade across the canvas and around the portrait of Henry Louis Taylor, bringing color, texture and depth to the story behind the UB urban planning professor and activist scholar:

"The greater the gift, the greater the responsibility." "Eliminate exploitation and oppression, actually change the system." "Mass incarceration." "Contain the heroin epidemic in the black community."

Charmaine Wheatley's portrait of Henry Taylor features elements of their conversation to create a textured, multi-dimensional story. Image courtesy of Charmaine Wheatley

Taylor, whose Center for Urban Studies has advanced holistic planning efforts in underdeveloped Buffalo communities for more than 20 years, is among several community leaders whose stories of health advocacy in Buffalo are represented in a series of portraits by Rochester artist Charmaine Wheatley.

Their collective story is told in "The Future of Health in the City," an exhibition presented by the UB Art Galleries in partnership with the University of Rochester Medical Center, where Wheatley is an artist-in-residence. The arts collaboration also includes the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus Innovation Center, the UB Center for Medical Humanities, and Restoration Society Inc.

The watercolor compositions reflect intimate conversations between Wheatley and her subjects, resulting in a textured representation of the person and drive behind their work in the community.

Taylor's community-building work focuses on issues of racial and social injustice on Buffalo's East Side, including the neighborhood around the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the focus of the Future of Health in the City exhibit. Here the Center for Urban Studies leads the Community as Classroom initiative, which engages middle-school-age students at the Futures Academy in urban design and planning projects across the Fruit Belt. The Center for Urban Studies led a neighborhood planning initiative in the early 2000s that continues to serve as a blueprint for development for the Fruit Belt community.

Taylor's research extends to Cuba, where he has conducted research on community development in context of racial and political division. 

Charmaine Wheatley and Dr. Henry Louis Taylor when they met at the medical school, sitting in the cafe with a glass window behind them.

Henry Louis Taylor and Charmaine Wheatley in conversation during her portraiture process. Photo courtesy of the artist

Other portraits feature community members fighting homelessness, medical professionals addressing race-related treatment disparities, diagnosis-related stigma, and nonprofit leaders working to improve access to care. The exhibit documents the impact of their work both in the neighborhood surrounding the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the broader Buffalo community.

Wheatley’s approach to portraiture relies upon an open conversation with her subjects, always held in a public space and with a simple setup - just paper and a set of watercolors. The portrait emerges with words and phrases seemingly scribbled throughout the page. "People aren’t just what the look like," says Wheatley. "You start talking to them and realize how rich and textured their lives are."

Taylor, who was was taken by Wheatley's ability to "capture a part of me that people rarely see," says the portraits speak to the urgency - and potential - for change: “These portraits are about hope: they show a dreamscape of social change. They are about the possibility of building a future city where wellbeing and wholeness reign.”

“The Future of Health in the City” exhibit is on view at the Connect Gallery in the Conventus Building (1001 Main Street, Buffalo) through fall 2020.