Hey Everyone — we’re marking another Diabetes Art Day today!
This is actually the 5th year that our Diabetes Online Community has embraced this web-based initiative to “tell a story about life with diabetes” through creative visual expression. Dreamed up and organized by our DOC friend Lee Ann Thill, who blogs at The Butter Compartment, this initiative launched in 2010 and has amassed an incredible gallery of art that illustrates what many PWDs (people with diabetes) struggle to express in words. Check out the past years’ galleries here: 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, as well as a special test strip accuracy edition last year.
This year, Lee Ann is actually conducting an academic study on the impact of D-Art Day, and she needs our help! As you may know, Lee Ann’s been living with type 1 since she was a kid in 1978. Now she’s an art therapist and researcher who wants to learn exactly how this kind of creative expression is helping people in their D-lives. Her study involves partaking in two brief 10-20 minute surveys: one before participating, and then another after.
Lee Ann urges everyone to participate in the surveys as well as D-Art Day itself:
“You will be contributing to knowledge about the role of creative visual expression in the lives of people affected by diabetes. After data collection and analysis is complete, we will share more detailed information about this study and the research findings.”
We’re also very excited to share the story of a very special D-artist today: Suzanne Gardner of Toronto, Canada, a longtime type 1 who’s experienced vision loss due to her diabetes, but used painting to turn that scary complication into an outlet for creative expression.
I talked last week with Suzanne, who was diagnosed at age 7 back in the early 1970s and is now marking her 40th year with type 1! While she was the only diabetic in her family and it caught everyone off-guard, she says all was OK until she started seeing some diabetes complications surface when she was in her 30s during the 1990s.
Bad News Turned Good
Suzanne never expected to become a professional painter, as she had studied sociology and gerontology (aging), and had worked as a nursing director for a seniors’ facility before turning to office management. But when the vision trouble materialized, everything changed. It started slowly with little micro-hemmorages in the back of her eyes and a little bleeding, she tells us. It grew from there into leaking, and Suzanne went through laser treatments. But the leakage became more aggressive until even weekly laser treatments weren’t working, so she had surgery in both eyes.
Now, she’s legally blind — only able to see shadows out of her right eye and with just about 25% of vision remaining in her left eye. “With very powerful magnifying glasses I can see, but I still need to be very close up to whatever it is that I’m looking at,” she explains.
The eye damage led her to lose her driver’s license and made her decide keeping her office job where she was responsible for insurance paperwork just wasn’t prudent.
“You have to redefine yourself in that kind of situation,” Suzanne says. “Suddenly, everything has to change and you have to find a new way of existing and defining your life. I was faced with a whole new world in front of me, and it was frightening.”
That’s when someone suggested she turn to art to get her mind off what was happening, and Suzanne decided to take some painting classes.
“I did it to pass some time and brighten up my day,” she says. “That’s all it started out as, but I fell in love with it. I always loved to draw as a kid, and so it came naturally even though my paintings were not good and very rough in the beginning. But inside, it made me so happy and became something I wanted to pursue.”
At first, she remembers trying to paint like other people on a normal-sized canvas because that’s how they taught her in class.
“But then I realized that I couldn’t see those little details on the canvas, and I had to get bigger and bolder in my painting. I learned to work with my disability, instead of against it.”
She bought huge canvasses and started painting with bright opposing colors, like blue and orange or yellow and black — since she can’t tell the difference between subtler hues like green, blue or black. “I tend to paint very large and vibrant paintings so that I can see what I’m doing. When I paint smaller works, they have to be more impressionistic with little detail to compensate for my poor vision.”
Big, Bold Colors
That beginning was about 15 years ago, and Suzanne says her “big, bold, vivid colors style” is now what she’s known for. Her art has been displayed worldwide and been shown off and sold in various shows. Yet the website where much of her artwork is displayed isn’t fancy, it’s simple: SuzanneGardner.com.
“(My painting) is the thing that I think about all day and can’t wait to get to in the morning. All things being said, it’s been a blessing in disguise,” she said about her vision loss. “Some may say, ‘What a disaster,’ but I don’t know if I would’ve ever discovered my passion for painting if I hadn’t gone through all of this.”
Suzanne says she doesn’t work diabetes into her painting too often, but she uses her art to tell her own story and help advocate to fellow PWDs about the importance of eye health, diabetes management and possible complications — along with trying to inspire others who may be facing scary complications.
She’s traveled around Canada and into parts of the U.S. to advocate, including an event during Diabetes Awareness Month in Nashville, TN, where she spoke about the importance of diabetes eye health. More than 2,000 people came out to raise money for the ADA, and Suzanne even created a live painting in the Genentech-sponsored DiabetesEyeCheck.org tent. (See the diabetes eye health infographic from that campaign we posted not long ago.)
“My mission is to… enforce and reiterate that it’s such a priority to get checked every year,” she said. “I use my story and my art to get that message out, because it’s not always on everyone’s mind. Especially when you’re diagnosed and are bombarded with scary facts about complications… you just block them out, sometimes until it’s too late.”
Taking her situation and even her not-so-positive thoughts and channeling them into art is what she loves the most about the whole process. Art is simply emotion on whatever canvas someone uses, and Suzanne loves being able to do that herself. But she also loves the idea of Diabetes Art Day and is planning to make up her own painting(s) to share on the galleries. Personally, I can’t wait to see what she creates!
“It’s a release,” she says about painting. “Making something that’s not necessarily a happy thing, into something that’s happy just makes you feel better. I hope I can inspire people who are going through hard times with their diabetes, let them know that even with diabetes complications and vision loss, you can do something that’s so visual and it won’t stop you.”
As someone who’s now in my 30th year of type 1 and has heard my eye doctors say I have the beginnings of retinopathy, hearing Suzanne’s story does scare me — because D-complications scare me — but it also makes my heart light up (as corny as that may sound). It’s reassuring to hear what can be done, and just viewing her art online brings so much emotion for me.
Sounds like a cliché, I know, but Suzanne and her artwork inspire me. Makes me realize that as much as I fear D-complications, experiencing them does not mean the end of happiness.
Thanks so much for sharing your story, Suzanne, and thank you to D-Art Day for bringing this all to light! Be sure to check out all the creations appearing in this year’s D-Art Day gallery. And please be inspired to share your own artwork, however homemade, with the D-Community.