by JENNIFER LAPKA
He climbed two steps toward his upper-floor New York apartment and paused to catch his breath.
Two steps more, pause, catch. He could not wait to see his wife and children who were at
home waiting for him.
Two steps, pause, catch.
He checked his
email on his phone so as to not feel like he was wasting time.
Two steps, pause, catch.
Art reflects life, which is particularly true for artist Dylan Mortimer and his current body of work. Born with Cystic Fibrosis (CF), he is currently living and breathing thanks to a third set of donated lungs. According to CFF.org, CF is a progressive genetic disease affecting the lungs and digestive system. “In the lungs, the mucus clogs the airways and traps germs, like bacteria, leading to infections, inflammation, respiratory failure, and other complications. In the pancreas, the buildup of mucus prevents the release of digestive enzymes that help the body absorb food and key nutrients, resulting in malnutrition and poor growth. In the liver, the thick mucus can block the bile duct, causing liver disease.”
Dylan was born in 1979 in Ohio and grew up in St. Louis. He was 10 years old when he was diagnosed, at a time when the average lifespan of a person with CF was 17 years. As a boy, Dylan loved drawing. He drew comics and thought about art school very early on, an idea supported by his parents. When he was 14 years old, he saw a flyer for a month-long summer art program at the Chicago Art
Institute pinned to a board at his St. Louis high school. He and a friend attended that program.
After high school, he moved to Kansas City to secure a bachelor’s in fine arts in painting from the Kansas City Art Institute. He studied under the now-retired Welsh abstract painting instructor Warren Rosser. Over the course of his time there, Dylan’s figurative painting changed to mixed media and sculpture and installations. After
graduating in 2002, he moved to New York to pursue an
MFA from the School of Visual Arts, graduating in 2006. While there, he was deeply influenced by faculty member and artist Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, who is typically associated with the American Pattern and Decoration art movement of the mid-’70s through early ’80s. (Lanigan-Schmidt is also well known for his involvement with the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which are widely considered to be the most important event leading to the modern fight for LGBTQ+ rights in America.) Pattern and Decoration was championed by New York gallery owner Holly Solomon and inspired by 1960s liberation politics, particularly feminism. Artists were producing large paintings, collages, and sculptures emphasizing pattern and all-over decoration using pipe cleaners, foil, cellophane, glitter, and other inexpensive materials.
In 2019, Dylan had his second full lung transplant in New York and moved back to Kansas City with his wife and two sons. He is currently artist-in-residence at the Townsend Building in Brookside, which is full of his works. These will be shipped to the University of Iowa, where his next show is taking place. That show will will conclude with adding his work to hospital, pharmaceutical company, and medical center collections. Paper, paint, caulk, glue, and glitter covered the studio’s surfaces, ready to be made into more works depicting cells, bronchial tubes, mucus, etc., and certain moments, feelings, and memories pertaining to his experiences of living with CF. Dylan used to resent the idea of making work about CF. “I didn’t want to talk about it; I didn’t want anyone to pity me.” But now, he fully embraces it and wants doctors, caretakers, hospital staff, and fellow survivors to see it and be inspired by it. In fact, he is taking speaking en gagements about his art and is thrilled he is able to simultaneously raise awareness about CF and art.
When asked about his goals for this year, Dylan replied: “I want to be happy and healthy, to continue running and biking with my sons. It is a gift to breathe, and it’s no less a gift for anyone else. Breathe and enjoy. I highly recommend it to everyone.”
Three of Dylan’s works have been recently installed at the KU Med Health Education Building (HEB). You can see his Open Spaces project, a pink painted tree called “Tree, Broken Tree,” in Swope Park; and a sculpture and two collages in the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art collection. You can also visit his representing gallery, Haw Contemporary, and website DylanMortimer.com.