For artist in­spired by ill­ness, ‘grat­i­tude out­weighs pain’

Orlando Sentinel - - HEALTH & FITNESS - By Cara An­thony

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Peo­ple of­ten ask Dy­lan Mor­timer how it feels to breathe through trans­planted lungs. He gets that a lot be­cause, while most peo­ple go through life with one pair of lungs, Mor­timer is on his third.

The artist has en­dured two dou­ble lung trans­plants in the past two years. He of­ten shares his jour­ney as a speaker on­stage. But when the cur­tain closes, he leaves the rest of the sto­ry­telling to art.

The pas­tor turned full­time artist buys glit­ter by the pound to il­lus­trate his bat­tle with cys­tic fi­bro­sis. For most of his life, the de­bil­i­tat­ing dis­ease clogged his lungs with mu­cus, mak­ing it hard to breathe.

As he be­came an adult and con­tin­ued to strug­gle for air, art be­came a way for him to ex­plore his dis­ease. He uses pat­terns and shapes in­spired by the struc­ture of lungs and cells. His art feels whim­si­cal — all that glit­ter makes it glow — yet each piece holds the weight of Mor­timer’s pain.

“The grat­i­tude out­weighs the pain,” Mor­timer said. “Even if you’re in im­mense pain, you know that my donor is not. He lives in me, but he’s not alive any­more. I am. So I’m grate­ful for his de­ci­sion, the self­less act.”

In his stu­dio in Kansas City, Mor­timer cre­ates ce­les­tial and glit­tery in­ter­pre­ta­tions of scars, lungs and op­er­at­ing rooms.

One col­lage shows Mor­timer’s view from an am­bu­lance, while other works cel­e­brate Air Jor­dan Nike sneak­ers — shoes that Mor­timer cov­eted as a child. “I’m tak­ing scars and wounds and mak­ing them bright and shiny,” Mor­timer said.

Hos­pi­tals and clin­ics that treat lung dis­ease of­ten com­mis­sion his work, in­clud­ing Barnes-Jew­ish Hos­pi­tal in St. Louis and New York-Pres­by­te­rian Hos­pi­tal in New York City.

Mor­timer ini­tially was a min­is­ter, lead­ing a church in Kansas City af­ter grad­u­at­ing from art school in New York City. He’s not a full-time pas­tor any­more, though he said he shares his faith through art.

“It’s seem­ingly a big tran­si­tion but, for me, be­ing a per­son of faith and be­ing an artist has all of these sim­i­lar­i­ties,” Mor­timer said. “You’re try­ing things out, you’re ex­plor­ing and you’re try­ing to find truth.”

At 3 months old, Mor­timer was di­ag­nosed with fail­ure to thrive. His con­di­tion was later iden­ti­fied as cys­tic fi­bro­sis. In 1979, when Mor­timer was born, doc­tors weren’t sure if any­one with cys­tic fi­bro­sis, known as CF, would make it past their late teens.

But treat­ment for the dis­ease im­proved as Mor­timer grew up and was able to en­ter art school. At 25, he mar­ried the love of his life, Shan­non, and they started a fam­ily while he honed his skills as an artist and pa­s­tored a church.

But by the time he was 37, the pro­gres­sive dis­ease had taken its toll. Doc­tors told Mor­timer he needed a dou­ble lung trans­plant. The hos­pi­tal found a donor, but Mor­timer’s body ul­ti­mately re­jected the first set of lungs. A year and a half later, he was back in the op­er­at­ing room for an­other dou­ble lung trans­plant.

This time, doc­tors felt more con­fi­dent about the match. And the lungs came from an un­ex­pected place: One of his In­sta­gram fol­low­ers, now a close friend, had lost a fam­ily mem­ber. The friend ar­ranged to see if his late brother’s lungs were a match and could be do­nated to Mor­timer specif­i­cally. “We couldn’t be­lieve it,” Mor­timer said. “I didn’t even know you could do that.”

And just a month af­ter the surgery in Jan­uary 2019, he was jog­ging again. Then Mor­timer started to com­plete longer runs. “I don’t like run­ning,” Mor­timer said with a chuckle. “But I like the vic­tory and the sym­bol it rep­re­sents, hav­ing gone through two lung trans­plants and fin­ish­ing a 10K. It’s some­thing to cel­e­brate.”

The sto­ries be­hind his medals, art and surgery might go into a book one day. “I be­lieve that there is hope in the most hope­less sit­u­a­tions,” Mor­timer said. “That’s cer­tainly what has kept me alive.”


Some of Dy­lan Mor­timer’s art cel­e­brates Air Jor­dan Nike sneak­ers — shoes he cov­eted as a boy with cys­tic fi­bro­sis.

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