Through late spring and into early summer, Kansas City artist Dylan Mortimer searched the trees in Swope Park for signs of death. He found a 40-footer that was dead for sure, but the park staff told him it was too close to the road and hazardous; they cut it down.
Mortimer was scouting a location for his installation in Open Spaces, the new city-wide art event that opens later this month. Open Spaces organizer Dan Cameron had been Mortimer’s instructor at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and invited him to create an original piece.
Mortimer had the idea to paint a dead tree pink and cover it in glitter. He wanted to create a giant “bronchial tree.”
Mortimer was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a baby, and began using his art to process his deteriorating health about five years ago. People who have cystic fibrosis overproduce mucous, and their lungs fill with fluid, making it difficult to breathe.
Mortimer hadn’t initially wanted to drag his lifelong illness into his work, but, he says, once he started to feel sicker in his mid-30s (people with the disease have a life expectancy of about 37 years), it would have been dishonest to continue to ignore it in his art.
The result was years’ worth of lungs sculpted out of metal, trees of every shape, size, and color, and many congested paper ribcages.
Creating lung and bronchial tree-related art, Mortimer says, “was a way to transform a really ugly disease into something beautiful; that’s what all the glitter is about — a really shiny material trying to transform a disease I was born with, with phlegm and blood.”
Mortimer finally found just the right tree at the park, not too dangerous, not too tall. He painted it pink, as planned, covered it in pink and clear glitter, and added just a touch of green for the mucous.
The outdoor installation near the bandstand by the entrance of Swope Park is called “Tree, Broken Tree.” He just recently put the finishing touches on it.
Set to include 200 artists over 62 days, Open Spaces is the first festival of its kind in the area. In 2006, Cameron began a similar event in New Orleans called Prospect; by then, he’d also curated such arts festivals in Taipei and Istanbul.
“The whole point of it is to highlight what exists already in Kansas City and put Kansas City on notice to those outside the city who aren’t aware of the institutions and artists and cultural scene happening in Kansas City,” Mortimer explains by phone from New York City, where he just moved his family for what he describes as an “adventure.”
He’s been able to do that partly because, in January 2017, something wonderful happened: Mortimer received a lung transplant.
The transplant has meant he can play more. His sons are seven and nine, and so far, he’s climbed a mountain with them, ridden bikes and enjoyed the freedom to travel.
Now, at 39, he’s also turned to healthier, shinier imagery, more painting now than sculpture. Sometimes he’ll create a painting that shows light beaming out of a scar.
“Tree, Broken Tree,” meanwhile, has an indoor counterpart: a smaller, less arboreal version of the same name on display as part of a larger exhibition titled “Blinded by Grace,” opening August 24 at Haw Contemporary.
“It’s the idea that when my branches were cut for the transplant to receive the new branches, that the green was kind of the remnant of the old ones,” Mortimer says of both the small piece at Haw and the life-sized installation.
“It’s been kind of an attempt to imagine, visually, healing,” he adds, “and post-transplant what it feels like to breathe for the first time, fully.”
“Tree, Broken Tree” at Open Spaces, August 25 through October 28 at Swope Park exhibition hub, 3999 Swope Pkwy & E. Meyer Blvd, Kansas City, Missouri 64132.
“Blinded by Grace,” 12-6 p.m. Friday, August 24 through Saturday, September 22 at Haw Contemporary, 15 West 19th Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64108.