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Natalie Irish: Artist with Diabetes.

Natalie Irish is an artist who paints portraits with her mouth, using lipstick as her "paint" and her lips as the brush.  While this is impressive all on its own, she creates her art all while wearing her pink insulin pump on her hip.  I heard of Natalie through my friends at Animas, and when I watched her on Conan O'Brien, talking about her artwork with her insulin pump infusion set up on her arm, I knew I wanted to know more. 

Natalie was kind enough to spend some time chatting with me on the phone, and the girl is an advocacy powerhouse, using her talent and creativity to bring both art, and diabetes, to a world stage.

Natalie Irish.
Kerri:  So when were you diagnosed with type 1, and what was that diagnosis journey like?

Natalie:  I actually have my diagnosis date tattooed on my wrist as my medic ID symbol.  It was the day before Halloween in 2000.  I had just turned 18, senior year of high school.  "Here, let's start your life over from scratch!"  It was one hell of a time to get a diagnosis.  I was ready for life changes, but this was more, "Hey, forget everything you know about how to live your life."

Kerri:  Not to mention it's the day before the biggest candy-focused holiday in the United States.

Natalie:  Yeah, which is why my friends and I always had a few laughs about the date.  "You got it just in time!"

Kerri:  Did you have any knowledge of what diabetes was before it became part of your life?

Natalie:  I don't really have any close relatives with diabetes … I have a great aunt, but no one in my normal life.  And I thought I had been going crazy, because [the diagnosis] had been building for a couple of months.  I ended up going to the doctor, and then to the hospital, and when they said the word "diabetes," I was actually relieved because I thought I had been losing my mind.  I mean, I was sleeping all the time, I couldn't focus on my sculpture classes, I was a zombie, you know? 

So I sat there in the hospital and thought, "Okay, what do I know about diabetes?"  I remember reading something once about pig insulin and, sonofabitch, that movie Steel Magnolias.  Unless you have direct contact with someone who has type 1 diabetes, people don't really know a lot about type 1 diabetes. 

I had the rest of my senior year and that summer to learn about it, and how to take care of myself.  My parents, always huge supporters of everything, they had to learn about it, too.  And honestly, sometimes I'm a little jealous of kids who've had this forever, because they KNOW it more.  I felt like I was playing catch up, learning about this and figuring out college and jobs … it was really crappy timing.

Kerri:  How soon after your diagnosis did you start pumping, and how has that experience of becoming a cyborg been for you?

Natalie:  After my diagnosis, my endo wanted me to wait at least a year before switching to a pump, but after about six months, she was like, "Yeah, let's get you on a pump." 

Kerri:  So going from not diabetic, to all of a sudden syringes, to now being a self-described cyborg.  I know working through that physically is a journey on its own, but how did you work through that emotionally?

Natalie:  Hell, I'm still working through that emotionally!  I love that all the blogs and the websites are now starting to talk about the psychological side of diabetes.  I talk to myself a lot, like when you get a bad blood sugar and the first thing I think is, "Oh, what did I do!"  I know it's my body that's a little jacked up, but I need to explain to myself that not everything is in my control, and sometimes you slip up, but this isn't my fault and I need to keep moving forward with this.

Kerri:  So it's not just about our pancreases, but it's our heads too?

Natalie:  Yup - just add it to the list!

Kerri:  What's the most frustration misconception for you that society has about diabetes? 

Natalie:  "Oh, you have an insulin pump?  You must not be taking care of yourself."  And I'm like, "Well first of all, that's none of your business.  But second of all, it's a very different disease from type 2 diabetes, and I just want to educate people about it, let them know about this.  Don't ever assume that you know about a disease just because you have a family member with it, or you read about it - do more research!  A little research isn't going to hurt you.

And sometimes I feel bad, because I know people have good intentions and are trying to be helpful.  But then I start explaining the difference [between type 1 and type 2], and they still don't believe me.  It's at that point I'm like, "Go home and Google it," but I just want them to know what type 1 is all about.  No matter how great of care I take of myself, I'm still going to have it.  If I eat better, exercise more?  Still going to have it. 

Kerri:  What kinds of jobs did you have before you landed on your current work?

Natalie:  No matter what job I had, I always did art.  But I've done everything from painting houses to working at a veterinary clinic, to slinging hay and seed at a feed store, to mucking stalls … I've done all kinds of stuff.  I've taught art classes for kids … I've worked at a nail gun store.

Kerri:  They only sold nail guns?  That's super niche.

Natalie:  Yes.  I've also sold tires.

Kerri:  Every person with diabetes sells tires at one point or another.  It's like a thing.  

Natalie:  It's a hobby - you didn't know that?

Making it happen.  (Image from Natalie's FB page)
Kerri:  So can you describe the process of making a portrait with your lips?  Do you sketch an outline first?  I'm so curious.

Natalie:  Think of how you would create a drawing.  I'll have some ideas, I'll sketch them out, and then move to the canvas.  If you're working with paint and charcoal, etc. you're going to lightly sketch out your proportions and draw out your image.  Well I do the exact same process, but the only thing that touches the canvas is my mouth.  And my eyes actually get more tired than my mouth, because being that close to the canvas can make you go cross-eyed pretty quickly.  I work in short sessions, but that's part of the challenge.  There was a lot of trial and error, and I have so many shoeboxes filled with lipstick - actually, I make my own lipstick these days.  I'm still feeling out the medium.  At first, it was important for me to keep the integrity of the individual lip print, but now I see how much blending I can get, or glazing, or underpainting. I want to see how far I can take this medium.  It's a constant process.

Kerri:  Bringing diabetes back into the equation, do you have plans to use your platform as an artist also as one for diabetes advocacy? 

Natalie:  I have spent the last year or two being busy with my art, but man, I love going in and talking to people, getting information out, getting more funding for research … that is so important for me.  JDRF is really good at making it so easy to become active in advocacy.  They make it almost simple to send emails, sign petitions … every little bit helps.  

Thank you, Natalie, for taking the time to talk with me and both for your artistry and your advocacy.  If you want to check out Natalie's work, you can visit her website, or give her a shout on Facebook


What a neat post today on such a neat woman!! This is why I heart you, Kerri - you find & share all the cool diabetes people and nuggets of happiness and support that I am too lazy to search out myself.

I love the combination of way outside the box creativity, cool stuff and advocacy.

Also Connor was released from the hospital the day before halloween (with instructions to trick or treat and work the candy into his carb counting program)

Great interview, Kerri! Loved reading her responses... and that interesting tidbit about selling tires. Who woulda thunk it? Anyhow, great advocacy work, Natalie. Thanks for taking the time here (and recently over on the 'Mine), and I can't wait to see what's next. Of course, the future lipstick paintings will be on my radar now, too!

I saw her on Conan when she was on...a very cool person!

Awesome :) I loved her on Conan, and I'm excited to see what unfolds for her!!

Great interview, except for artist's implication that those of us with Type 2 "must not be taking care of" ourselves.

I'm all for diabetes advocacy, but why slam T2's?

As an aside, Kerri, thank you for all the info you share. Your experience with the Dexcom CGM has helped me tremendously. I'm on week two and am so thankful for this amazing device.

Great interview, you guys! I love Natalie and all of the work she's doing. Keep kissing! :-)

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