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Living with Diabetes: The Sweet Arts

Using creativity to help cope with diabetes

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.

Thomas Merton

Ask some people living with diabetes how they cope and they may be more likely to mention the daily struggles of the body than they are to reflect on the more elusive concerns of the spirit. With a disease that requires time and effort to manage, the idea of spending precious hours making art may seem frivolous. But for some, such as artist Ana Morales and Diabetes Hands co-founder Andreina Davis, art is anything but a waste of time; it is a way to connect people and emotions.

Artist and student Ana Morales doesn’t remember her life before being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a young child, nor does she remember how she first became interested in art. “I had a book in elementary school that had a space you were supposed to fill out in every grade, asking what you wanted to be when you grew up,” said Ana, who’s now a senior at James Madison University. “Ever since kindergarten, I always wrote artist.” 

As an art major, Ana is staying true to her dream. Despite a lifetime of making and thinking about art, however, it wasn’t until the first Diabetes Art Day in 2010 that she ever considered making art about her disease. “Art was the one part of my life that diabetes didn’t affect, so I never thought about focusing on it,” she says, explaining that as a shy person, she didn’t always feel comfortable talking about or revealing her diabetes. With encouragement from Diabetes Art Day founder Lee Ann Thill, she decided to give it a try. The resulting piece showed a hand in front of a colorful background, a drop of blood on the tip of the ring finger, accompanied by a message written in orange script, “Maybe sometimes we feel afraid, but it’s alright.”

“I made that because it was one of those days when my blood sugars weren’t doing well, and I was worrying about things,” Ana explains. “I was trying to make something that showed the reality of diabetes – that it can be scary – but I also wanted to be optimistic about it and reassure myself that it’s going to be okay.”

She was happy with the piece, but it wasn’t until the following year’s Art Day – for which she drew a portrait of a brown-haired woman giving herself an injection in her stomach, also accompanied by text – that her personal artistic focus truly shifted. “All of a sudden, I realized that it felt really good to make art about something that’s so personal to me that it’s sometimes hard to talk about,” she says. “I had this sudden overwhelming urge to make art that expresses the different emotions I feel about diabetes.”

She hasn’t stopped since. Now working on a diabetes-inspired show, Ana has so many ideas for what she’d like to express through her art, ranging from what it feels like to give yourself an insulin injection to what it’s like “when you’re sick and your blood sugars are all over the place,” that she has to write them down in a notebook so she doesn’t lose track. While her paintings often reflect the challenges of living with diabetes, Ana doesn’t just focus on those alone. In one painting, a drop of insulin sparkles like a jewel. In another, she focuses on how thankful she is to have a supportive family. “That one shows my two hands with finger pricks, with multiple other hands reaching for mine,” she explains.

Her hope is to help people with and without diabetes to connect the emotions that come with living with it every hour of every day. “You think about diabetes 24/7,” Ana says, “And along with that comes different emotions – anger, sadness, even happiness, when you think of how fortunate you are to have people who support you or a means of getting supplies. I’ve felt a whole range of emotions about diabetes, and I’m trying to express them in my art.”

She also encourages other people to try making something for Diabetes Art Day, even if they don’t think of themselves as particularly artistically inclined, just to “see how it makes you feel.” After all, as she points out, you don’t need to actually share it. If Ana is any indication, the results could be cathartic. “I needed some sort of release,” she says, “and I thought that drawing about diabetes might help me feel a little better about it, or at least accept my feelings about it. Once I started, it felt natural. I wondered why I hadn’t done it before.”

Andreina Davis wonders, as well. She sees firsthand the many ways people are using the arts to cope creatively with diabetes. Do you have a way with words? You can contribute – and read – diabetes-related poetry through No-Sugar Added Poetry. Are you wishing to express yourself but not naturally artistically gifted? Even the most artistically challenged among us can contribute to Word In Your Hand, a project that simply asks you to submit a photograph of your hand with a word written on it that summarizes your feelings about diabetes.

Both of these projects – along with several others like them – can be traced back to one organization: the Diabetes Hands Foundation (DHF). Founded in 2008 by Davis and her husband Manny Hernandez, DHF is best known as the parent organization of the large diabetes social network, (and its Spanish counterpart, But it actually is far more than a message board or resource for diabetes-related information. The Diabetes Hands Foundation is committed to bringing people with all types of diabetes together in as many ways as it can. One of those ways is through art.

This is, in large part, thanks to Davis. An architect with a master’s degree in design, she is both DHF’s graphic designer and its creative director. As an artist herself, Davis believes strongly in the power of art to serve as an outlet for the many emotions that accompany life with diabetes – not to mention as a tool to bring people together. “Sharing your art with people is a way of being like brothers and sisters, like a family,” she explains. “Sometimes the art is dark, sometimes it’s joyful. Either way, sharing something that is so dear to your heart just connects you to people on a stronger, deeper level.”

Although she doesn’t have diabetes herself, Davis is a diabetes caregiver, and has felt this connection personally. She still remembers, for example, a poem submitted for No-Sugar Added Poetry about what it felt like to have an episode of hypoglycemia. “This guy wrote a poem about what it was like to be low, this overwhelming sense of weakness,” she says. “Being married to someone with type 1, I see lows and I fear lows – but it’s from a different point of view. The poem helped me understand what it was like from a different perspective.”

While the Diabetes Hands Foundation has played a large role in organizing and publicizing these projects, many of them were original ideas from the diabetes community. The Word In Your Hand program, for example, was the idea of a board member; No-Sugar Added Poetry came from an endocrinologist. “That’s why,” says Davis, “the Foundation’s newest initiative puts even more power in the hands of the community. Called DHF Seeds, it is a micro-grant program aimed at providing financial support to projects that empower, connect, or educate people living with or touched by diabetes.” According to Davis, “Art can apply to any one of those.”

After completing a micro-grant application process that was open to all, the five DHF Seeds finalists for 2012 were announced in May. Each was asked to make a video to be posted online that explained their idea. The diabetes online community then helped vote on a winner – creating a closed loop between the project creators and the people with whom they’re trying to connect.

“We’re really excited about it,” says Davis. “As we move forward with DHF, we see ourselves not as the people who are going to actually do every single art-related program ourselves. Instead, we want to provide support by nurturing other people’s sweet ideas.”

Catherine Price is a freelance journalist and type 1 diabetic who has written for The New York Times, Slate, Popular Science, and O Magazine, among others. She blogs about diabetes at Catherine is currently working on a book about the history and science of vitamins, to be published by the Penguin Press. Price is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewees, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

Diabetes Hands Foundation has received sponsorship funds from Sanofi US.

© 2012 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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