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Why Bill Gates is commissioning fine art

January 8, 2015

Each year, about 6 million people die from diseases that are preventable with vaccines. And about 1 in 5 children around the world don’t have access to life-saving vaccines.

But those are cold and dry statistics.

The Art of Saving A Life enlisted more than 30 artists to create images that bring those numbers to life — to spark conversations, interest and, ultimately, funding for vaccines.

“In science and medicine, we’re convinced that what we work on is really cool, really important, and should interest everyone,” says Orin Levine, director of the Vaccine Delivery Team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “But we haven’t always provoked that interest. Art really speaks to everybody as a way to provoke a conversation, or convey a message.”

The Gates Foundation sponsored the project and will release the artwork throughout January on a website. The pieces aren’t for sale but will be displayed at a conference in Berlin, on Jan. 27. The goal of the conference is to raise money for Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, an organization aimed at vaccinating millions of children in poor countries. (Note: The Gates Foundation is also a funder of NPR.)

The artwork is lovely, profound and sometimes stark.

Illustrations from Sophie Blackall offer a colorful view of some places in the world where children often miss vaccines: remote villages and overcrowded slums.

To reach kids in rural villages, health workers often carry vaccines on donkeys, in canoes and over treacherous mountains. “The challenges are enormous for people carrying this precious vaccine,” Blackall says. “And in city slums, the children are everywhere, but how do you round them up?” she says.

British cartoonist Darryl Cunningham takes the reader on a comic book journey that covers 15 years, depicting the effort to stop tetanus. In illustrated panels, Cunningham explains the cause of tetanus, its dreadful consequences to mothers and their newborns, the development of a vaccine and the heroism of the workers who find and vaccinate people.

The artist Vik Muniz looked at images of cells used to make the smallpox vaccine and created a pink, floral pattern of art.

Francisco Toledo, a Mexican artist, drew on his childhood memories of seeing pigs killed at his grandfather’s slaughterhouse. Pigs can be mixing vessels for new and deadly strains of influenza. So Toledo painted a pig on a precarious declining ramp.

Other artists in the project include photographer Annie Leibovitz from the U.S., writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from Nigeria and illustrator Evgeny Parfenov from Russia.

“The artist’s creative process often sheds new light on a topic,” says the Gates Foundation’s Levine. “We hope the art is going to stimulate conversations both in communities that are used to talking about health issues and among people coming to it for the first time.”

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