Art Imitates Life: How One Woman Draws Inspiration From Illness

Grace Korzekwa | 5/16/2019, midnight
As a fashion illustrator, Kris Keys creates art from real life, in real time.
Kris Keys Contributed

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 7 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."