Dylan Mortimer has explored faith and spirituality in his artwork for more than a decade in a very public way — outdoor prayer booths with knee pads where people can stop and pray, and oversized sculptural haloes that light up when visitors approach.
Now, for the first time, he's addressing his chronic illness, cystic fibrosis, in spectacular glitter.
Just hours before First Friday, and the opening of his new show in the main gallery of Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, Mortimer was plugging in strands of lights. 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."
Mortimer grew up the son of a pastor, and he's a pastor, too. In his art, he’s combined his Christian faith with hip hop imagery – like fake gold bling. He calls his large-scale pieces signs, and takes inspiration from the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas or Times Square.
For the last year, he’s focused on fusing the spiritual and the scientific in these signs, which resemble large 3-D paintings created out of foam, plastic, and caked-on glitter.
"I’ve worked with aluminum, candy paint – I could never quite get the look and shine of that glitter," he says.
And in the imagery, for the first time, Mortimer is sharing something he’s kept private: a chronic illness. 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.
"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.
"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 close to 30 percent lung capacity. His daily awareness of this has worked its way into the images on the walls of the gallery: a red and pink bronchial tree lined with Christmas lights, rib cages…and tennis 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 is the one called, 'Can I Live?' with the tear drop," he says. "So, that’s kind of the question that I’ve been asking from early on, is, yeah, 'Can I live?' 'Can I survive this?' 'How long do you 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 dialog – 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 and death and hope.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter, @lauraspencer.