If you need a seasoned actress, call Jennifer Taylor. And if you need original, hand-painted furniture, well, call Jennifer Taylor.
Not only does Taylor own and operate the Painted Board Studio on 7418 West Madison in Forest Park, she has also acted for 25 years. Most recently, the Riverside resident landed a recurring role on Fox’s new hit drama “Prison Break.” Taylor plays the role of Becky, the prison secretary of Warden Henry Pope (Stacy Keach). Her role on “Prison Break” is especially unlikely, considering Taylor was ready to hang up her acting hat and commit herself fully to her business because she wasn’t finding any acting work.
She decided, however, to go on one last audition for the role of Becky, and show business pulled her back into the fold.
“I can’t tell you how good it feels,” she said. “It is a mini-dream. For as long as I have acted, I have always wanted to be a part of a group that tells good stories. I think the creative process validates a person. I have only done three episodes of the 12 episodes they film, but it has been great.”
The show shoots most of its scenes at the Joliet state prison, which was constructed in 1858 and was the same prison used in “The Blues Brothers.” Its limestone facade and dark interior provides a perfect backdrop for the show, according to Taylor.
Taylor plays a prim and proper secretary, but most in a recent episode stepped into the forefront of the show’s plotline when a romantic encounter between her character and a guard enabled a prisoner to escape. Taylor said she was very nervous about the scene, but she was also excited because her character impacted the storyline of the show. When Taylor called her husband about her big scene, he just groaned.
“Here I am in this room, on a table making out with a man and I am almost 50 years old,” she said. “There are about 50 people standing around, but when you act it quickly becomes clear that any idea of romance will be removed. Everything is by the numbers, but it was really fun.”
Taylor’s journey to the Chicago area is just as interesting as her most recent role. After graduating from Viterbo College in Lacrosse, Wis. with a Bachelor of Arts in theater, she moved to Minneapolis and started acting in a few productions. During her time in Minneapolis, she married Gary Henderson. Soon after their wedding, the newlyweds thought it prudent to move to New York City with just $500. And as it has for many others, the big city provided a rude awakening.
On just their second day in New York their car packed with all their worldly belongings was stolen. The couple was forced to find a mattress in the street and sleep on friends’ floors until they found jobs.
After that rocky start, the couple began to settle down. Gary decided to go to Yale to get his master’s degree in photography and Taylor landed a part on a soap opera called “The Edge of Night” as Detective Chris Eagen, acting alongside now “Desperate Housewives” star Marcia Croff.
“That role was really fun. … During one part of the show I got shot in the head and was blind for three months,” she said. “For three months, I was in a hospital bed. I’d lie there and paint eyeballs on my bandages when I knew I would be off camera to make the actors doing a scene with me laugh.”
Finally, when the soap went off the air in 1985, she and Gary moved to Los Angeles. Once there, Taylor landed roles on Bob Newhart, Shelly Duvall’s “Tall Tales and Legends” and “Highway to Heaven.”
But it was still a struggle to find consistent work, and after five years, Taylor and Henderson, both of whom are Wisconsin natives, decided to move to Chicago. Shortly after moving to Riverside in 1991, Taylor had an idea to start an arts center based on her need to interact with creative people. This simple idea led her to Ruth Freeark, which in turn led to the birth of the Riverside Arts Center.
Freeark’s husband, Bob, was a retired a transplant surgeon and Ruth was a sculptor. Taylor met Freeark and told her she was interested in buying a building the Freearks owned to create an arts center, but the asking price was too much. A few days after their meeting, Freeark called Taylor at home and wanted to know if she was interested in buying the building.
“Ruth told me she was hoping that I was the one to get it started, but I couldn’t because of the price,” Taylor said. “Well, after that conversation, I was like a lion frothing at the mouth. I really wanted to start the center. Finally, I called her back and told her I couldn’t buy the building, but I was hopeful we could start the center together.
“She told me she would call her husband and about 10 minutes later she called back and told me we could have the building for one year. One thing led to another and 13 years later it is going like gangbusters. I am still the vice president to this day and it is an awesome place.”
But the creation of the arts center proved to be just the beginning. Just before Taylor left New York, her husband gave her some oil paints and, when she arrived in Los Angeles, she started painting in earnest. Then, in 1995, a friend of Taylor’s asked her to paint a coffee table. Before she knew it, Painted Board Studio was founded in Riverside before moving to its present location in Forest Park.
“It really has been an amazing journey so far,” she said. “I really cannot imagine doing anything else. I have about five different helpers at the shop that gives me the flexibility I need if I have to go to an audition. Business has really been great and I couldn’t be happier.”