I do not know of many representations of diabetes in art or culture, at least ones that interest me. There is the movie, Steel Magnolias (1989). The Julia Roberts character Shelby, who has diabetes, is possessed by a hypoglycemic episode (really, it’s freakishly portrayed) while in a beauty parlor chair, as you probably have seen, and she later dies young.
Ann, the protagonist of the Kathryn Harrison’s novel, Exposure (1993), has diabetes, too, but does not die young. A New Yorker, videographer, crystal meth addict, and shoplifter — doesn’t she sound busy? — Ann doesn’t take insulin when she is supposed to and yet she does take that meth. Clearly, she has (out of) control issues. It’s a strange story, even stranger than I’ve described, and yet at least Exposure is literary.
Art is not required to be representative. I know that. But still, I can’t help but look for myself out there. As a woman, for example, I do like to read novels with women characters. It follows that, as a person with diabetes, I might like to read a few good novels with diabetic characters or see diabetes refracted through film, music, or visual art.
I’ve stayed on the trail, and several weeks ago I came across the work of collage artist Kathryn DeMarco, who makes self-portraits, some featuring explicit or oblique references of her body with diabetes. Online, I found her portrait above, The Boss of Me, and stared at it a long time in recognition. I’ve held the same pose, looking in my bathroom mirror, holding up my shirt to look at the white adhesive patch on my midriff, the pump held in my hand like a heavy fish still attached to the line. And the look on the face — not smiling, not frowning — is sober and forthright. Like mine, when I look at myself.
I show the image to 11-year-old Grace, and I ask her, “How would you characterize the look on the figure’s face?”
Grace says, without pause: “Authority.” I ask what she means. She elaborates, “She’s like a female teacher.”
Art is not required to teach us anything, but sometimes artists do. Recently I interviewed Kathryn DeMarco about her art and her experience with diabetes; it’s published here, along with more images of her collages. Our conversation has prompted me to think especially about why self-portraiture (or, in writing, memoir) is so compelling, the using one’s self and preoccupations as material. As Kathryn told me,
I’m a free model for myself… In the studio, I’ve got a mirror, and I take a lot of pictures of myself. Also, for some reason — I don’t know if I’ve got a lot to say about myself — I can get more emotion through self-portraiture.
I do like to hide other figures in the background of the self-portraits. That’s one of the guessing games of my collages: Who’s that person hiding back there?
Her collages, with other figures hiding visibly in the background, remind me how portraits of individuals are constructed in a context of other people, just as identities are constructed. We are individual, and we are assemblages.
Asked about how diabetes made its way into her work, Kathryn replied that, at first, it was “only in snarky little bits.” (I love that phrase.)
What’s fun for me in a collage is that I can hide stuff in there. And that’s what started me with the diabetes artwork. I can hide funny stuff, sad stuff, whatever. It’s like my personal joke to myself. Sometimes audiences get it; sometimes they don’t. Most of the time the hidden stuff is just something out there for people to jump to their own conclusions about.
Parts of my conversation with Kathryn were not included in the final piece, although of course I retain the full transcript. About the hidden stuff in her work, I had noticed that, in at least two pieces — Nov. 28 That’s It and Torn Apart — there were shards of text with the phrase “black and white” quite visible. Perhaps I noticed them because of my own personal belief that we live life more in the gray scale than at the edges of the binary. I asked Kathryn what about the idea of black and white resonates for her.
In my Bad Dreams series, I started doing a color figure on the black and white field. Color, that’s kind of new in my work. About those strips of paper, though, with “black and white,” there’s that Paul Simon song, “Kodachrome,” with the line, “Everything looks worse in black and white.” That always is in my mind. Because I really think everything looks better in black and white.
An admirer of the work of Balthus, who called himself the King of Cats, she sometimes refers to herself as Queen of Cats. 🙂 About her dual attraction to self portraits and animal portraits, which she makes on commission, Kathryn says that it’s about the eyes:
I identify with figures, with people. I like to see eyes. I like to get an emotional impact from what I’m looking at from other artists also doing figurative work. I started doing self-portraits in color and in black and white at Boston University. After I was on my own and trying to think of art to make, I saw my cats swirling around and picked one of them up, Carmine, and started drawing. I could have Carmine looking at the viewer, and I could have myself looking somewhere else. Cats have very expressive eyes.
It’s interesting to apply the notion of “the gaze” to Kathryn’s work. The maker of a self-portrait understands she will be exposed to an audience. That’s a risk. Even though some of the figures in Kathryn’s self-portraits turn away from the gaze (this may be more prevalent in the nudes), some of the figures gaze back, and we are powerfully eye to eye.