Dylan Mortimer grew up as the son of a Missouri preacher. For more than a decade, he’s explored faith and spirituality in his artwork in a very public way, with outdoor prayer booths and oversized sculptural haloes. Now he’s turning to something he’s kept private – a chronic illness.
Just before his show opened in Kansas City, Missouri, in December, Mortimer was putting the finishing touches on his work in a large white box gallery in the city’s arts district. He’s tall and boyish – and there’s a trace of gold glitter on his neck.
“When you think of glitter, it’s 99-cent store and cheap, and very accessible,” he says, “and yet it has this shine and this very illuminated kind of divine look to it.”
Over the last year, Mortimer has focused on creating a new series of what he calls signs, inspired by the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas or New York City’s Times Square. They’re like large 3D paintings made of foam, plastic, and caked-on glitter. And, for the first time in his artwork, he’s sharing his experience with cystic fibrosis. But making it has been a challenge.
“Yeah, because I’ll be out of breath just kind of getting to my studio and walking in,” Mortimer says. “So I just have to go slow, you know, so it’s possible. Sit down a lot, take breaks a lot.”
Cystic fibrosis runs in his family. His mom has it, his younger brother has it – and he was diagnosed with it when he was only three months old.
“Kind of, when you grow up as a sick kid, you just sort of want to be normal,” he says. “And you don’t want to talk about it.”
But Mortimer says he felt dishonest at this point – not to bring his illness in to his art.
“This season of my life, and this season of work, [it] felt right to bring it in, partially because the severity of it has increased,” he says. “I’m not far from being put on a list for a lung transplant.”
Thick, sticky mucous is a symptom of cystic fibrosis – and it clogs the tubes bringing air in and out of the lungs. Mortimer says he’s down to 33 percent lung capacity. His daily awareness of this has worked its way on to the walls of the gallery: a red and pink bronchial tree lined with Christmas lights, images of rib cages…and tennis shoes.
“There also this mix of Air Jordan shoes. Because there’s air in the shoes and I want more air,” he explains. “I did a Google search for more air and the first thing that came up is Air Jordan and Nike Air max and all of these things. So I thought, how appropriate.”
Age 37 is about the life expectancy for most people with cystic fibrosis these days – although some live into their 40s or 50s. And Mortimer is now 36.
“The very first piece I made was the one called, “Can I live?” With the tear drop,” he says. “So, that’s kind of a question that I’ve been asking from early on, is, yeah, ‘Can I live?’ ‘Can I survive this?'”
There’s no cure for cystic fibrosis – but there’s ongoing scientific research and new medications. Since he was little, Mortimer says, he’s taken more than a dozen medications a day – including a new one that he says has given him more energy and helped with weight gain. But he knows it’s not a cure.
“So my surface level journey in life is finding ways to be healthy, or finding ways for a cure,” he says. “But I need cure in a lot more ways than that, spiritually, mentally, psychologically. I think we’re all searching for cures.”
He says that art and faith both offer ways to ask the tough questions, although there aren’t always easy answers. And that maybe some of his artwork and its shiny glitter will help start conversations about life, death and hope.
Dylan Mortimer’s show ‘Cure’ runs through February 13, 2016, at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center in the Crossroads Arts District in Kansas City, Missouri.