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Second chance for artist -- Snellville man pours heart into painting after transplant

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips<br>John Duke, a local Snellville artist and kidney transplant survivor, uses water colors to paint flowers at Cobble Creek Studios on Tuesday. Duke has numerous works of art hanging at the studio and gallery for a two month long show titled "Bursts of Color."

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips
John Duke, a local Snellville artist and kidney transplant survivor, uses water colors to paint flowers at Cobble Creek Studios on Tuesday. Duke has numerous works of art hanging at the studio and gallery for a two month long show titled "Bursts of Color."

SNELLVILLE -- John Duke talks about painting, and his first love becomes evident right away.

It's his art, and he is passionate about it. The Snellville artist talks about color and medium and light and canvas like a dad might talk about a favorite son, with pride and understanding.

About five years ago, he might have sounded a little different. Duke was undergoing dialysis three days a week, working three days and feeling tired and exhausted most of the time. Because of a congenital kidney defect -- he was born with only one kidney, and it didn't work properly -- he was suffering from renal hypertension that caused scarring in his kidney.

"It had gotten to the point of no return," he said, and dialysis began as did the search for a donor kidney.

"I knew from about the age of 19 that I'd need a transplant," although he said that he never really felt bad physically until dialysis started.

As fate would have it, the three-day-a-week ritual only lasted sixth months. Then, he encountered a woman who would change his life forever.

"Looking back, I guess it was supposed to happen exactly the way it did," Duke said.

The artist's parents also live in Snellville, and one day they mentioned to their mail carrier, Jenny, in passing that their son had just started dialysis.

"A couple of weeks later, she told my parents that God had told her that she was supposed to be the one to give me a kidney," Duke said. "She said her mom and daughter were OK with it, but her husband was still not sure about it."

According to Duke, he and his family really thought no more about it; the idea was just too far-fetched. Jenny had other ideas.

"She went ahead with the testing, and it's very thorough," Duke said. About a month after the testing at Piedmont Hospital was complete, Duke's parents heard a knock at their front door. "It was Jenny, and she was saying, 'I'm a match.'"

In fact, the only way the match could have been closer would have been if Jenny and John were twins.

That was five years ago. Today, John is a healthy, content man who has been given a great gift -- a second chance.

"I haven't had any problems in five years," he said.

As difficult as the dialysis was for him, Duke looks back and says with conviction that it happened for a reason. The six months of dialysis cleaned his system and prepared it for the transplanted kidney. His life has been changed in more ways than just physical healing, though.

"Now, I appreciate life and the world a lot more. This whole experience gave me another chance to do what I was supposed to do, and not just go through the motions of living," he said.

Now, instead of working for a printing company, John paints and teaches art classes for a living.

"I work a lot more now, but it's not really work." He added, "I'd like more notoriety, sure, but I'm happy."

Duke's art reveals his appreciation for life and the beauty that can be found in a single bloom or a forgotten lean-to in the country that has its own patina and character.

"You have to look through something, not at it, in order to really see it and be able to paint it," said Duke of the art of painting a person, a scene or a simple object. "You start with the foundation, then you build on it layer by layer."

John Duke's gift of looking at everything in life that way is not just about being a talented artist. It's about being a man who's been handed a second chance.

"My wife doesn't always understand how I get so lost in it, how a whole day can go by and I've forgotten to eat when I'm working," laughed Duke, referring to his wife of 18 years.

Their son, a Georgia Tech student with a passion for biological research, is an intellectual who also looks at life in a different way.

"I used to tell him, 'Wow, look at that tree, or look at that cloud, did you see that?' and he'd say, 'Huh? No.' He'd have his face stuck in a game or a computer." In fact, Duke said he used to worry that his son would miss life, because he was so preoccupied with his books and computers. "Now, I get that people just look at things differently," he said.

To see examples of Duke's artistic creations, which include pencil portraits, watercolors, oil paintings and even sculpture, visit www.cobblecreekstudios.com.

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