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The man behind WallTherapy

Dr. Ian Wilson uses urban art program to raise money for cloud-based diagnostics in developing countries.

As a professor in the Department of Imaging Sciences at the University of Rochester Medical Center—put simply, a radiologist—Ian Wilson is also an artist, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and film producer. His WallTherapy event, which brings street mural artists together to paint their visions onto barren city façades, kicks off July 19.

Wilson might be one of the busiest people in Rochester — but it’s all for a good cause.

When he’s not walking the floors of the URMC, Wilson’s energy is focused on Synthesis Collaborative, a nonprofit organization he co-founded with medical-device sales representative Jason Flair to bring teleradiology and cloud computing to underdeveloped, underfinanced health communities around the world. In layman’s terms, Synthesis Collaborative uses its IMPACT! (IMProving Access to Care by Teleradiology) initiative to place digital x-ray equipment in remote hospitals that lack radiologists and equipment. Then, the group uses online connections with a worldwide network of volunteer radiologists to provide results from the x-rays. The idea came when Wilson was approached by H.O.P.E. Haiti, a project-based non-profit that’s headquartered in Rochester and Borgne, Haiti.

“They wanted to know if we could provide x-ray services there,” he says. “I knew different components of this solution existed so I wasn’t rethinking the wheel, but I was putting it together in a way that was not for profit. Surprisingly (few) of these solutions are not for profit.”

According to the World Health Organization, approximately four billion people have no access to chest x-rays.

Synthesis Collaborative is privately funded right now, with about $30,000 raised, and plans for grants, partnerships and crowd funding are in the works. In addition to H.O.P.E. Haiti, the Synthesis Collaborative team is hoping to establish residence in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh via a partnership with Miami-based Hope Foundation for Women and Children of Bangladesh. Wilson traveled there in December 2011 for a site evaluation and found some working analog equipment but no access to cloud-based computing.

Overall, Wilson estimates they must raise at least $150,000 to set up each site. To spread the message here at home, he’s found a way to incorporate public art into Synthesis Collaborative. “So much of our work is going to be directed to communities overseas, it’s kind of hard to garner support for activities abroad if no one really sees them,” he says.

His solution is WallTherapy, the community art project that assembles local and international artists in Rochester for just over a week each summer to create public murals. In a twenty-minute film he produced for TEDx Rochester with director Phillip Night in 2011, Wilson explains that his original idea for public murals sprang from a youth-on-youth homicide headline in Fall 2010. The art is a vehicle for Synthesis Collaborative’s goals and, according to WallTherapy co-curator and lead organizer Erich Lehman, a way to put Rochester on the international public arts map.

“Bringing international muralists in to work alongside local artists ends up serving a few functions,” he says. “One of the best parts to me is that these visiting artists get to experience Rochester with residents who truly love this city, what it has to offer and what it is capable of. As a result, everyone who has visited has left an unofficial ambassador for Rochester, helping spread a positive message about our city when so many in the national media are quick to write off Rochester as another failed Rust Belt city. These artists feel a connection to the city and the people and want to see it succeed as much as we do.”

There were sixteen WallTherapy murals completed by eleven street artists throughout the downtown area in July, 2012, and this year’s collaboration will focus on the El Camino Trail and South Wedge neighborhood. Wilson also plans to send the artists to each community that the IMPACT! initiative reaches.

“Going forward, we’ll incorporate and create murals in the communities we deploy and install the (x-ray) equipment to,” says Wilson, who received permission from the Borgne community in December 2012. “We’ll address the medical needs but also the spiritual and emotional needs that art appeals to, and find a wider base in that way.”

Through the annual WallTherapy project and continued work to raise funds for Synthesis Collaborative, Wilson hopes the “Image City” will take on a new meaning: that images save lives, and heal cities. Those street murals enhance life, and medical X-ray imagery preserves it.

“The Rochester community has strong philanthropic roots and achievement, and Synthesis Collaborative is another example of what the Rochester community can do, not just for us but abroad,” he says. “It’s a high visibility project which comes right back to Rochester—the source and energy is here. The roots are here. This community gave birth to Synthesis Collaborative.” 

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