Major Projects: Faces of a Plague

"Our hearts beat in the same rhythm.
Our heart's desire is the health and well-being of those we love the most.
Our sexual secrets lurk to embarrass and shame us.
In every way that matters, we're alike."

Karen Blessen, journal entry
Originally published in The Dallas Morning News on Sunday, June 23, 2002

Click news page for larger view

In February of 2002, I traveled to Malawi and Mozambique with Save the Children as a member of the HIV/AIDS Leadership Council. The goals of the trip were: to meet and interview women living with HIV/AIDS, to observe Save the Children's programs, and to gather information and images in order to fulfill an assignment for The Dallas Morning News.

I came back from Africa bursting with impressions, emotions, and powerful images. Tom Huang, The Dallas Morning News editor who saw my first complex story outline, said something like, "Let's simplify and tell the stories of these five women." And by telling their stories, (and with Tom's editing), "Faces of a Plague" began to paint the larger, complicated picture of AIDS in Africa.—Karen Blessen

Editorial Art

In writing "Faces of a Plague", I didn't know if the Dallas readers would engage with stories of women on the other side of earth.

But the story did garner reader attention, and some asked "What can we do?" My editorial, "What turns compassion into action?" was a response.

After that, ArtSpirit (a Dallas arts group) began to develop "Today Marks the Beginning", a production derived from the newspaper story, which went on to raise over $40,000 for relief efforts in Malawi.

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Art Process

Chatinkha Nkhoma
Sketchbook pageColor thumbnailFinal Art

Graca Neves
Sketchbook pageFinal Art

It was important to me that the African women were shown with their words, so that their message was delivered to the Dallas reader as it was spoken to me. I was the conduit. The portraits of the women integrate with their words and with photographs which are give each woman a sense of place.

The base pencil drawings of Grace, Chatinkha, and Aides were taken straight out of my sketchbook. Abeda and Mary were done in a more graphic, flat style.

My process for developing art is to do sketchbook drawings, small color thumbnails, and then begin the finished art. The illustrations here show examples of this process.

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Malawi and Mozambique sketchbook pages, 2002

"In drawing the faces . . . I wanted to honor them, to extend my time with them and to get to know them in the way that works most deeply for me - through the intimate act of intense eye-to-hand observation. Drawing."

—Karen Blessen
Originally published in The Dallas Morning News on Sunday, June 23, 2002

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Readers' Responses

I was quite moved by your piece on the plight of AIDS in Africa. Your "portraits" of the women living with this condition was outstanding. I knew that there was a higher rate of AIDS in Africa, but it all seemed so overwhelming in the past. Besides that, I had no idea that the statistics were so dismal.

Thanks you for this gift and for sharing your experiences there.

Dawn Fountain, A Sunday paper browser that has become a Sunday paper reader.

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I enjoyed your article in the Dallas Morning News on June 23, 2002. Obviously, these people need help and lots of it. I am more of a long range solution person wanting to help in providing better living conditions, such as water supply, wastewater treatment, housing, paved roads, irrigation, etc. Can you give me the names of people working in these areas, either in USA or Africa? Maybe I can help with the efforts that must already be ongoing in these areas. Thanks for your help for these people.

Albert H. Halff,

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I thought your communication was powerful in both image and word. The power of simply your last paragraph made me cry. . . . But I also think you did such a good job of giving a broader perspective as well as the personal reaction, and of providing resources for action. Thank you for the vulnerability and the courage you gave to such important work. I certainly hope you are proud of the way you have distilled your personal journey into a call to the heart of others—and lived up to the faith of Mary (and the other women) who looked to you with hope. Few of us have had such a real impact on righting things in this world.

May the response be all you hope for.
Bette Buschow

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I'm in. What can I do? Thank you for being my conduit to a situation I was well aware of but didn't take action. I'm very open to suggestions on what would be the most meaningful way to assist in this arena.The women in your story are practicing what Bertrand Russell said. One must care about a world one will never see.

Again thank you for re-opening my eyes to a something akin to a 21st century holocaust.

Jan Pairsh

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Only one paragraph before the one in which you said that you burst into tears, I did. What a brilliant and moving piece! Your extremely gifted, sensitive illustrations/art and words, woven with such compassion, surely will make a difference in garnering attention and help. My church, St. Jude Chapel downtown, is very close to, and supportive of, a church in Lagos, Nigeria that serves about 30,000 people. The wonderful American priest who has been there many years visits us usually once a year to report on the challenges, the needs and the progress. Your story makes me want to give more. Your journal entries were riveting.

Dedie Leahy,

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Just finished your heartfelt article on Mozambique. WOW. You touched me, and I'm sure countless others. You will be directly responsible for saving lives as a result of your call to action. I'm going to log on and donate to UNAIDS right now. What a beautiful and compassionate journal of your experience.

Susan Pospisil, Coppell, TX

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Reading your article was a humbling experience. You succeeded in putting a personal face on a "situation" that seemed to be so remote as to be nonexistent for me. These words will be meaningless without follow-through, but until then your effort and your subjects deserve a response.

Thank you.
Eileen Hall, Coppell, TX

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I really enjoyed your piece in the Dallas paper. Is there any possibility that I could contact any of the women in your article. I am a recent transplant to Texas, living in Tyler........ I am a pharmacist and would like to get involved in increasing access to needed antiretroviral drugs for women and children. If needed, maybe, I could sponsor one of the women........Thanks for any information/assistance.....

Bailey Tyler, Tyler, TX

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I read your story this am online and its very powerful! Moving... and it drew me "in" by making me feel like doing something. ( worked) Why is this world so filled with these horrific challenges contradicted by my own "blessed" life? The humbling experience of reading about the women in the article reminds me to balance this good life with more. You have done something important and unqiue! You certainly need to keep this message going .... maybe I can help you do that...

Peter Kohlmann, The Bronx, NY

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I read your story in the Sunday paper and I pray it gets the attention it deserves; it was excellently done, very powerful and right on target. I have been very concerned for several years but have been at a loss as to what to do to motivate folks. If you ever want to chat about what a few people might do here I would love to hear from you. Bush's recent announcement about $500kk sure was political capital, as we know a big chunk of that was old news, and the rest is deferred, and may not materialize....even so, it is a small part of what we should be doing as a nation. Anyway, take care and keep up the good work. Peace.

Joe McFatter, Dallas, TX

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I read every word of your article on AIDS in Malawi and Mozambique, including the art-words in your five riveting paintings. I felt connected to it all. We're all the richer and wiser for your experience.

John A. Lovelace, Dallas, TX

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I wanted to write and tell you how much I enjoyed your story in yesterday's Dallas Morning News. I work as the advisor to a student group here at SMU that raises money each year specifically for pediatric HIV/AIDS. The organization is called "Mustang Marathon," and the mission is to organize an event in which SMU students stay awake and on their feet dancing for 28 hours to raise money and awareness about pediatric AIDS. We do a lot of educational programs here on campus and in the Dallas community, and I'm wondering if I can have permission to reprint your article, or use quotes from it, for use by our students. The illustrations are powerful as well. What an amazing experience your trip must have been. I bet "life-changing" doesn't even do it justice.

SMU's Mustang Marathon is always looking for new ventures and partnerships, so please keep us in mind if you have any programs or opportunities here in the DFW area. We raised nearly $50,000 last year and hope to exceed that in 2003. Our dance marathon is set for February 21-22, 2003, on the SMU campus.

Thanks for your work and for putting it down in words.

Jim Barber
Coordinator of Student Activities & Fraternity Programs
Southern Methodist University

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Brava! Karen. Thank you for shaking my conscience, provoking my thought processes and breaking my heart. The last journal entry about being baptized brought me to tears. I think many of us who read your piece have also been baptized into your community. We, too, are in.

Mary Hall, Dallas, TX

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You will never be the same.....and neither will many of us you shared the experience made the whole tragic pandemic come alive for us by getting us into the hearts and heads of specific women.

I remember the first time I tried to teach about and prayed about the enormity of the problem in Africa...MANY YEARS AGO Countryside United Church of Christ in Omaha, Nebraska, and I fear it fell on deaf ears...but you have made it real for people. I surely hope there will be results from your efforts.

Lea Marshall

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Thank you. Thank you!!! My heart has always gone out to the innocent ..."the children of the world". The thing that gets me really mad is that the drugs for AIDS are out there but the parents can't get the meds which will at some point leave an innocent child without his mom and dad. When I think about this it saddens me big time cause I also think about my little 3 1/2 year old little girl....and what if we lived in Africa and she was going thru this not knowing if her mom and dad would be around....too much!!!!

Again I thank you ever so much. Peace to you,
Lisa Castillo, Dallas TX

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:: Faces of a Plague article
:: Editorial Art
:: Art Process
:: Sketchbook
:: Readers' Responses



Special Section:
:: Africa
:: One Bullet
:: Faces of a Plague
:: Hyatt Regency Wall Sculptures
:: Today Marks the Beginning
:: Times Square
Public Art:
:: DART - Baylor Station
:: Love Field Sidewalk Proposal
:: Peace One Day
:: Be an Angel
:: Red Cross Blood Museum
:: Dallas Animal Shelter

Contact Karen Blessen :: :: :: :: 214-827-3257 :: Email Webmaster Artist and writer. Cut paper collages, illustrations,
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copyright Karen Blessen unless otherwise noted.