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Katie Lamb: Art as Advocacy

Today we have another guest blogger, Katie Lamb. Katie is an amazing artist, who focused her art on diabetes and using her art as a medium for advocacy. I first came across Katie on Instagram, having seen for art and related to it. Me and Katie have also volunteered together on a Diabetes UK Type 1 Event last year! I am so pleased that Katie has shared her insights, this is truly a great blog about the power of art and alternative media can have!I hope you enjoy, and thank you so much for sharing Katie.


Until Next Time,

Alyssa x

Katie and Alyssa

1. Can you share your personal journey with type 1 diabetes and how it inspired you to use digital art as a means of advocacy?


I was diagnosed with type one diabetes just before my second birthday in February 2003. I was fortunate to have a relatively good diagnosis, despite the first healthcare professional my mum raised concerns with telling her that she was ‘just hormonal’ and I was ‘just a toddler’.

 

Art and diabetes have always been connected for me, for as long as I can remember. When I was little, I would draw a picture for my nurse before every clinic, so she had an entire gallery of my art over the years. Even before I was making art about diabetes, art was a space for positivity and a way for me to process the emotions that come with diabetes, and that has just grown and evolved as I have grown. I don’t think I ever would have predicted my art reaching so many people or just how important it has become over the years through my diabetes journey, but it is interesting to look back and see that creativity and art have always been a vital part of my relationship with diabetes. 


My first experience using art for advocacy was to advocate for myself, although at the time I was completely unaware that was what I was doing. During a period of intense burnout as a teenager, art had become the natural option, and potentially the only option I felt I had to communicate how I was feeling and what I needed. I don’t think I realised this at the time, but it was as much a way for me to understand my own experience and needs as it was for my healthcare professionals. The success of that painting in opening conversations both within my clinic and then at Diabetes UK events for professionals sparked something within me, and confirmed this passion for making a difference in the lives of people living with diabetes in the way I knew best. 


I had always felt called to have some involvement in diabetes, having grown up with a close relationship with my diabetes team. Exactly what that aspiration would look like was unclear for a long time, and so there was a sense of relief with this discovery of the intersection between art and diabetes and the potential it held for a place for me in this community and on this journey, and I had something to offer in my own way. 


2. How has digital art become a powerful tool for advocating for type 1 diabetes, mental well-being, and improved access to diabetes technology?


I first posted on Instagram in March 2020, I thought maybe there would be someone out there interested in art and diabetes, and I stumbled into this incredible community where art became a way to empower other people with diabetes and to share both my story and the stories of so many others. I posted my very first digital drawings- which was a medium I had never used before and was really using just for a bit of fun between studying- starting with some portraits with quotes I thought resonated with my experience of diabetes, and people online had the most incredible response. 


There was something empowering about seeing other people with diabetes being turned into art that meant other people wanted to join in, and I was able to connect with people with diabetes from around the world who were responding to the art or wanting to be involved with it. It was significant to me to begin with a series of portraits of people from across the diabetes community. Portraits act of signifiers of the status of the subjects, and what could be more important in advocacy spaces than the voices of lived experience. 


Advocating for the community can only work when it takes place in collaboration with the community, when it is rooted firmly within the shared stories of the people represented. Creating digital art has become a key tool for me to hear and represent the stories of other people living with diabetes, to connect with the community and understand the concerns of a vast number of people to help drive change in the areas that matter most to real people’s lives. 


People respond to the art with their own stories, with their reflections and insights and often with a new perspective which adds to my understanding of a topic. I am constantly open to an interpretation of an artwork separate from my initial intention, but which allows me to learn more about people’s experiences of diabetes. The right meaning is whatever you see, or you feel when you interact with that artwork, so the piece almost comes alive, existing as different things to different people and influencing a range of advocacy goals.


Digital art has given me a platform and tool to communicate with healthcare professionals and industry organisations, which is a key factor in taking these conversations out of the community and into the spaces where our voices have been long overlooked. It has given me the opportunity to highlight the need for access to technology along with sustained support and education, and to present new perspectives of the emotional burden of diabetes to professionals. Diabetes is messy and abstract, and I believe a creative approach is needed for organisations or professionals to understand a full picture of these abstract feelings and experiences. 





3. Your art often highlights the emotional aspects of living with diabetes. How do you hope your work resonates with others who share similar experiences?


From the very early days of drawing pictures in diabetes clinic, art has been a tool for me to reflect and process my own experiences with T1D. Frequently, the most challenging of these experiences have been the emotional aspects of living with diabetes, and thus it has become deeply engrained in the work I share. Art was often the only way I could highlight these topics within my own life, where I struggled to find the language to verbalise what I was feeling or find the opportunity to have these conversations with anyone who really understood. 


Art can feel less confrontational than having to speak about these things and abstract enough that people have the option to interpret it in a way that makes sense in their own diabetes journey, so it does not rely on us all having the same experiences, just sharing a safe space to talk or to just understand. We all have such different experiences of diabetes, but we are united by these themes and common threads that exist for us all. When so many people with diabetes experience elevated levels of isolation, the ability to share and hear stories can make a dramatic difference, and art offers an alternative way into these stories.

 

I hope people know that they are not alone, that their experiences are valid, and their story is simultaneously remarkably unique and held in a collective understanding of what it means to live with diabetes. I hope people feel heard through the artwork even if they don’t have the language to vocalise it themselves, or that an artwork can inspire a creative expression of their own. My art often comes back to self-compassion, which has been a challenge for myself, and I know it is a challenge for many people with diabetes- I hope we can use art to see some beauty within the mess, to see ourselves as masterpieces in the making. 








It is important to remember that people online are not therapists, and that its vital to have your own boundaries around the support you can give and the things you want to share online, which is a lesson I’ve learned over time. Talking about emotional wellbeing and mental health requires a level of mutual vulnerability so I am constantly considering both how I feel about sharing an artwork and what impact it could have on the person on the other side of the screen. Mutual vulnerability is hard, it asks a lot from both sides, but I think done well it leads to a sense of trust and safety in the space which gives me the opportunity to be open and for people to resonate with these topics. 



These paintings took a significant amount of vulnerability to share, but I was driven by the need to raise a topic I so rarely see being spoken about. My struggle with self harm using insulin went unnoticed for so long partly because no one knew the signs or how to raise the conversation about it, and for hypo awareness week I knew this was something I needed to share in the hope that having these conversations might help prevent another person sharing this experience. 


4. In what ways do you believe digital art can break down stigmas surrounding diabetes and mental health, fostering a more supportive and understanding community?


For a significant part of my journey with diabetes I was unsure if anyone felt the same way about having diabetes, or if this was simply how it had to be and would be forever. I experienced periods of burnout throughout my childhood with diabetes, but never had the space to acknowledge what that meant or what could be done. People around me were not having the conversations, and I didn’t know I was allowed to talk about it.


By using art on social media, I can start conversations about diabetes and mental health, or join in, by contributing my experience. I think the more we give ourselves permission and opportunity to discuss these difficult bits of diabetes, the more we can break down the stigma around them. It is so easy to fall into a cycle of toxic positivity on platforms like Instagram, to strive for inspiration without acknowledging the inevitable challenges. I hope my art gives people the chance to know it’s okay to find diabetes really rubbish some days, to have a positive outlook and still cry about it, and to accept that sometimes diabetes might stop you – and that those things don’t make you any less strong or worthy of anything. 



It has been a joy to experience countless conversations in response to my art work, from people who have lived with diabetes for decades but never seen these topics expressed in a way that resonated with them, or with parents of children newly diagnosed with diabetes who can find some reassurance and peace in these messages of hope and encouragement.  I hope we can all make space for creativity in our diabetes, to connect with each other and advocate with the tools and gifts we have to use. 


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