After lung transplant, artist Dylan Mortimer breathes new life into art

Artist Dylan Mortimer

At 3 months old, Missouri native Dylan Mortimer was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. The debilitating disease gave him a projected lifespan of 20 to 30 years, with persistent lung infections and complications that put him in and out of hospitals. With art as an outlet, Mortimer infused the themes of his life—pain, healing and faith—into his three-dimensional paintings, collages and sculptures, which have been on display across the United States.

Now, at 38, Mortimer’s work is inspired by a life-changing, double lung transplant surgery he received in January of 2017.  The surgery not only transformed his ability to breathe, but also his ability to spend time with his family and his work. His creations, which often use anatomical images such as lungs and cells, are a fusion of sparkling, shimmering glitter and more sterile shapes to depict his lifelong battle with his health.

Mortimer’s work will be on display Aug. 25 to Oct. 28 at Open Spaces 2018: A Kansas City Arts Experience, and his past work can be seen online at dylanmortimer.com.

Kansas City Spaces: When did you discover your artistic ability?
Dylan Mortimer: I started drawing comic books and things probably around 3rd or 4th grade and got pretty into that until high school, when I started taking actual art classes. Then I went to the Kansas City Art Institute, and then the school of visual arts in New York for grad school.

KCS: What made you start working with glitter?
DM: I went through a variety of mediums and worked mostly in sculpture for about 10 years. The glitter started probably 7 years ago, and I slowly began to incorporate my health into the conversation visually. I was hesitant to do that for a long time, just growing up in and out of hospitals—I didn’t want my whole life to be about that. I didn’t really want to talk about it, but my health declined to a point where it felt dishonest not to talk about it in some way. I kind of slowly went in and dove in all the way. I made a lot of connections and reconciled that this isn’t all of who I am, but it’s a big part. The glitter made sense of covering up something that was really really ugly. When you’re handed that at birth, all of life is, “How do we transform this into something that’s glistening and beautiful.” And the glitter represents that.

KCS: How did your lung transplant impact your art?
DM: It transformed it on a practical level—I started selling a lot more work. People had a much more emotional reaction to the work. It (slowly) shifted from being primarily sculpturally oriented to more about the imagery and symbols I was using. Some of those symbols were present before, but the anatomical ones became more and more dominant. In the last couple of years since the transplant, it’s shifted more toward painterly and collage work.

It’s become a lot of storytelling, both literal stories of being given someone’s lungs, but also what it feels like to breathe for the first time, really. It’s crazy to have first done that at 37 years old. I’m trying to describe visually what it feels like to be healed and be well, so a lot of it’s just imagination of what my cells might look like functioning correctly, and this scar and the loadedness of this symbol. It’s kind of become a way of journaling through all of those emotions and thoughts.

KCS: How have people responded to your work post-surgery?
DM: Before, my work was about things like spirituality, faith and prayer. But I realized people engaged with it topically, which was fine, but it was more impactful to me to see people engage with it more personally. I’m a little bit more transparent and vulnerable about my own journey, so in a roundabout way it has led to discussing prayer and faith more than before.

KCS: What do you hope people get out of seeing your art?
DM: I hope that they can feel the struggle and the pain and despair initially, and that they can see my journey of reflecting and finding hope amidst the dimmest circumstances. And that they would reflect on their own situations, and find hope, find life, even there. It’s a lot about overcoming adversity and celebrating being alive at all, and not taking anything for granted.

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