Art Imitates Life: How one woman draws inspiration from illness

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FASHION ILLUSTRATOR Kris Keys (above) was born with a rare genetic blood disorder initially diagnosed and treated at St. Jude in Memphis, Tennessee. Keys was introduced to art during one of her hospital visits. Today she is working on a women’s clothing collection called Hematology, inspired by her own blood cells.

By Grace Korzekwa

As a fashion illustrator, Kris Keys creates art from real life, in real time. She brings a canvas to life in feathery watercolor strokes, fluid yet precise.

As a fashion designer, she’s a storyteller, a modern traveler connecting her life with her art. Her clothing must be both beautiful and practical. Adventures await.

As a woman, Kris carries herself with the quiet confidence of someone who set off to see the world while managing a chronic blood disorder. She knew what she wanted, and had the faith to make it happen.

“Kris does not brag on herself,” says her mom, Gwen Keys. “But that’s just her. She puts her heart and soul into her paintings. I just look at her videos and see those paintings come to life. And I just…how do you do it?”

Family mystery: solved

It was 1985, the height of the AIDS crisis, and fears abounded about anything related to blood. Kris was born with a low blood count, and blood cells described by the family pediatrician as looking “crazy.” He recommended a blood transfusion.

Her mom wasn’t having it. “I said, ‘No, you are not going to transfuse my baby until you tell me what’s going on. You’ve got to give me a diagnosis. You’ve got a nurse on your hands.’” A career floor nurse, Gwen determined she would use her knowledge to advocate for her newborn daughter.

Snapshot of Kris as a child.

Enter St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, fortunately located in the Keys’ hometown. Most often known for researching and treating childhood cancer, St. Jude also began treating blood disorders from its very founding in 1962. “Danny Thomas. That was a gift from the Lord,” says Gwen of the late entertainer and St. Jude founder. “Dropped him in Memphis, Tennessee, of all places. He could’ve been in New York or California. But the Lord led him here.”

A physician at St. Jude was able to identify the abnormality: hereditary elliptocytosis, a genetic blood disorder causing misshapen blood cells. Both sides of Kris’ family had been carrying the trait, unknowingly, for generations.

Kris was seen regularly at St. Jude for monitoring. She was seven years old when her mother noticed the first signs of an aplastic crisis, one of three crises associated with her condition. Depleted with a virus and dangerously low blood count, Kris became too weak to walk.

“I remember her daddy had to pick her up and put her in the car that day. That was the scariest,” said Gwen. “She was a sick puppy.”

Kris received a blood transfusion at St. Jude. To keep her mind off the impending needles, the nurses gave her art.

Art: a gift and a salve

Gwen remembers seeing one of Kris’ early attempts at illustration. “It looked like Grace Jones was getting ready to jump off the paper.”

“I wasn’t going to tell her, once I saw her abilities and her confidence, no, you can’t do this. Be a lawyer, be a teacher,” Gwen says. “That’s not what the Lord intended.”

Kris told her mom she wanted to do an internship in New York City. Gwen told her there was no way they could afford it — but Kris had already accepted the position. Her mother had hardly ever been out of Tennessee.

“I learned something about faith from her,” says her mom. “Because she was so confident that this was going to happen. And it did.”

The world is her canvas

Kris completed her internship and went back to New York for two years after graduation, working in fashion merchandising for companies such as Ann Taylor and Blue Planet International. And then, New York wasn’t enough.

At the London College of Fashion, she learned the basics of garment construction and how to tell a story through clothing. She found her way all over the world. Turkey for denim, Barcelona for printing. And she made her home in London by connecting the city with her art.

“Because I was new to the city, I did not know very many people. I’d just go out and draw people,” she said. “And then that kind of led to me illustrating at fashion shows. And then that led to me showing my work on Tumblr, before Instagram and stuff. Then companies found me and that led to me doing freelance fashion illustrations.”

After a health crisis abroad, she became curious about her blood, and how she could tell that part of her story.

Hematology, a collection in waiting

Kris’ doctor at St. Jude gave her slides of her own blood cells to support her brainchild — a capsule womenswear collection called Hematology.

“Red Cell” and “Jaundice” silk travel scarves are already available, featuring Kris’ dreamy, haunting prints, which clearly have a concrete influence.

The literal threads of the Hematology collection are spun to intertwine Kris’ artistry in her illustrative prints, “practical luxury” for the traveling woman, and those abnormal blood cells. The cells that run through her body every minute of every day. The blood that keeps her alive, but that also reminds her to be careful, careful.

A future collection will draw inspiration from Kris’ neighborhood growing up, where her parents still live. An exhibition of Hematology will expose her work to a larger audience and show a new generation of women they can turn their art into the tangible. Kris considers options to move back to New York or London. Tokyo is in the mix.

Whatever she does next, wherever she makes her home, her blood runs through it.

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