The remarkable vision of Kris Keys

 

After being treated for a rare blood disorder, one former St. Jude patient put her condition to paper and fabric. 

 
 

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.

And as a storyteller, Kris encourages anyone else facing a chronic illness or condition to see that there’s another side. “There's a golden pot at the end of the rainbow, basically,” she says. “You have to have faith. Pray and allow your doctors to lead the way.”

kris keys pictured here as a child

Kris was born with a low blood count, and blood cells described by the family pediatrician as looking “crazy.”

A physician at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital 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, a nurse, 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.

an illustration of blood cells and patterns by Kris Keys

An illustration by Kris Keys depicting blood cells.

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. Because she was so confident that this was going to happen. And it did.

Gwen, Kris' mother

 
 
photo of an paintbrushes
 
photo of scissors and illustrations by Kris Keys
 
photo of paint brushes
 
photo of an illustration by Kris Keys
 

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.

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

photo of Kris Keys with her graduating class at the London College of Fashion

Kris with her graduating class at the London College of Fashion

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

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 is considering moving back to New York or London. Tokyo is also in the mix.

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

All artwork featured in the article’s accompanying photos is owned by Kris Keys. ©2012-2018 Kris Keys. All Rights Reserved.

 
 

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