Art of diversity: A (much) larger-than-life mural takes shape in the Jacobs School atrium

Artist Julia Bottoms takes a break, surrounded by the images of the UB students and alumni she is skillfully bringing to life. Photo: Sandra Kicman

Release Date: January 16, 2024

“The idea of breaking new ground and representing a history or a community is always really exciting to me as an artist and my larger body of work is in line with that. ”
Julia Bottoms
Artist who is painting the Jacobs School mural

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Something bright, beautiful and extraordinary is taking shape in the atrium of the University at Buffalo medical school

On most days this month, artist Julia Bottoms can be found standing on the scissor lift, applying to the plain white walls of the second-floor atrium a vivid explosion of color. The purpose of the massive 50-foot-wide by 16-foot-tall floor-to-ceiling mural is to convey and celebrate the diversity of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB and to demonstrate that the school is a partner with the community.

The need for color

The idea to create a mural in the Jacobs School first emerged back in 2019.

Raul Vazquez, MD, a 1989 Jacobs School graduate, his wife, Toni Gaiter-Vazquez, EdD, a 1991 UB graduate, and the late Jonathan D. Daniels, MD, a 1998 Jacobs School graduate and formerly associate director of admissions, saw the need to literally bring some color into the school.  Vazquez is  president of CINQCARE New York; he and his wife are the founders of Urban Family Practice and the Greater Buffalo United Accountable Healthcare Network (GBUAHN) in Buffalo. 

“What’s been important to the Vazquez family and to everyone involved is to show how important diversity, inclusion and belonging are to the medical school and to tell that story in a bigger way,” says Jen Seth-Cimini, senior director of advancement in the Jacobs School, who is administering the project.

For Vazquez, that message is personal. He remembers that when he arrived at the UB medical school in 1985, nobody looked like him. Today, the Jacobs School is a far more diverse place but, he says, there needs to be a way to communicate that to people, especially to visitors as they enter the building.

Bottoms grins from her perch on the scissor lift, which allows her to paint from floor to ceiling. Photos: Sandra Kicman

‘You gotta see it to be it.’

“Once the mural is done, we hope that our students and especially visitors will get a sense of our diversity and equity, which can make up a bit for the inequities they see in life,” says Vazquez, who also founded Urban Family Practice and the Greater Buffalo United Accountable Healthcare Network (GBUAHN) in Buffalo. He adds, “We hear this cliché from high school and middle school students, ‘You gotta see it to be it.’”

That, in essence, is the point of the mural, and it’s central to the kind of art that Julia Bottoms has focused her career around.

“The Jacobs School is already a beautiful space and it’s a great environment to add that extra element to,” she says. “The idea of breaking new ground and representing a history or a community is always really exciting to me as an artist and my larger body of work is in line with that.”

The mural shows UB students and alumni, some in scrubs, another in a white coat, chatting, walking, jogging; it shows a streetscape just outside the school as well students relaxing or jogging in a park. “The mural reflects how much the Jacobs School community is an integral part of downtown Buffalo and how our students, faculty, staff and trainees all live and experience the campus as part of the city,” says Maria Wilson, inclusive excellence workforce specialist in the school’s Office of Inclusion and Cultural Enhancement.

Bottoms initially assumed that the project would include the hiring of models; that changed once she met with the Jacobs School art committee.

“They wanted the mural to truly represent the school from start to finish,” says Bottoms, “so we said, ‘What if we use Jacobs School students and alumni as our models and make the mural truly focused on UB?’”

Wilson sent out a casting call to faculty, students, staff and trainees; more than twice as many individuals as needed responded.

“Our models were wonderful,” says Bottoms, “they were all good, it was so hard to choose.”

Up close and personal

The opportunity to physically be in the school, working to create this important piece while physicians, scientists and students are walking by, taking it in is also an experience Bottoms says she will never forget. She has felt privileged to experience the Jacobs School community up-close and personal and to see firsthand the dedication of its students, who are often studying into the wee hours of the morning.

“I see what a vibrant and diverse community the Jacobs School is,” she says. “I hope the mural helps people recognize that diversity.”

Vazquez and his wife Toni are funding the project and their family has additional Jacobs School connections: Their daughter, Nina, graduated with an MD in 2023 while another daughter, Nadia, is in her second year.

The Medical Alumni Association, the Office of Inclusion and Cultural Enhancement, the Office of Medical Admissions and the Office of the Dean, as well as the art committees of UB and the Jacobs School, have been critical in making the mural a reality.

The mural is expected to be completed in the next few weeks; a public unveiling will be scheduled soon after.  

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