GRCC student’s ArtPrize entry tells story of kidney disease, love, and hope

This year's ArtPrize features an entry by Hudsonville resident Natalie Frias.

And it's her very first piece of art. The entry, a sculpture with painted kidney beans as its foundation is called “Silent Absence” and can be viewed through Oct. 1 at the JW Marriott in downtown Grand Rapids.

There’s a story of love and hope behind her ArtPrize piece of kidney beans.

Nine years ago, when Frias was rushed to the hospital, both her kidneys — irreparably damaged by childhood strep throat — were failing and had shrunk to the size of dried kidney beans.

“I needed a kidney transplant, but none of my family or friends were a match,” Frias says. “I’d just met my now-husband, Mike, on a month earlier. Mike stayed by my side and even got tested to see if he was a donor match … and we matched again.”

A true match

On March 21, 2016, the pair underwent a successful transplant surgery at Trinity Health Grand Rapids Hospital and married just three months later.

Today, the couple lives in Hudsonville with their two young children. Frias is enrolled in Grand Rapids Community College’s Occupational Therapy Assistant program. 

The couple’s tale of a love and kidney match has been featured on the “Today” show, in People magazine, and on the local news. Frias even wrote a book about her journey, called “Fighting Failure.”

“I consider myself a kidney warrior,” says Frias, now 41. “Even though 1 in 7 American adults has kidney disease, 90% of them don’t realize they have it.”

Spreading awareness

Frias has made it her life’s mission to spread awareness of the dangers of kidney disease and the importance of becoming an organ donor. She shares her message using social media, public appearances, her book — and now through art.

Her ArtPrize piece includes hundreds of kidney beans painted green, draping vine-like down an empty wooden chair, and pooling on the floor.

“The kidney beans represent kidney disease, and the chair represents a place at the table with your loved ones,” she says. “It’s meant to demonstrate how kidney disease slowly takes over, taking you away from your loved ones and your normal daily life.”

Frias worked on the piece late at night this winter after putting her kids to bed and finishing her GRCC homework. It became a kind of therapy for her.

As a busy mom, wife, and student, Frias hasn’t had a lot of extra time to chat with ArtPrize visitors viewing her work. But when she’s there, the experience has been magical.

“When I’m able to tell people my story to better understand the sculpture, the look that comes over their faces is really amazing. They suddenly understand why I’m so focused on kidney disease awareness, and we just instantly connect,” she says.

Art as advocacy

Matt Mekkes, director of GRCC’s Occupational Therapy Assistant program, says he appreciates how Frias is utilizing ArtPrize as a platform to educate others.

“This skill of advocacy is one we strive to develop in all our students as they move from student to practitioner,” Mekkes says.

Frias wants her ArtPrize piece to tell a story.

“If you look very closely, you’ll see a flower blossoming near the top,” she says. “That flower represents hope … hope for a cure.”

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.