Lee Ann Thill is a diabetes blogger and art therapist who was diagnosed with type 1 in 1978 when she was 5 years old. She is the founder of Diabetes Art Day, which she started to encourage people with diabetes and their loved ones to utilize creative visual expression as a way of communicating their experience with diabetes, connecting with others, raising awareness, and promoting insight and positive coping skills. Lee Ann is a registered board-certified art therapist and Pennsylvania licensed professional counselor who provides services to people with diabetes and other health-related concerns at her office in Jenkintown, PA
Tell me when you first got the idea for Diabetes Art Day? It was actually suggested to me last summer by Cherise Shockley who created and hosts the #dsma twitter chat on Wednesday evenings, and the #dsma Live podcast on Thursday evenings. She comes up with such creative and innovative ways for the diabetes community to use social media. After mulling over logistical things like how to share the artwork and promote it, and identifying my broader goals for doing it, I offered it to the DOC. I designated September 1st as Diabetes Art Day, and it spread through word of mouth, via blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and diabetes community websites.
This is the 2nd annual year right? What kind of response did you have? Can you describe the variety of submissions? (ie: mostly men, women, young, old, professionals, beginners or all of the above) Were there any surprises?And did you have any favorites? Yes, this was the second year, and overall, response seems to have increased over last year, although I haven’t done the math. I had several goals for this year’s event: (1) increase family participation, (2) increase participation from people who don’t have blogs, (3) continued participation from people who don’t consider themselves artists, and (4) increase participation from people with type 2 diabetes. I made a point of encouraging family art-making in the weeks leading up to Diabetes Art Day, and it seems like that improved over last year. Unlike last year, this year there is a dedicated website for Diabetes Art Day that allows people to upload images to an online gallery, which I think helped increase overall participation, especially from people who don’t have blogs. There were definitely submissions from people who appear to have some experience with art-making, but my impression is that most people probably don’t typically engage in art-making. One of my fundamental beliefs, and certainly one of the reasons I’m so invested in Diabetes Art Day, is because I believe all people, no matter what their artistic experience or skill level can enjoy and benefit from art-making.
As someone with type 1, I love seeing the type 1 community so invested in Diabetes Art Day, but I hope in time, we see more type 2 participation. I think Diabetes Art Day is a good way for us to see what type 1 and type 2 have in common, as well as better understand what it’s like to live with another type of diabetes.
As far as favorites, that’s hard to say. It’s part of my nature as an art therapist to value all artwork as a reflection of someone’s inner experience. For those people who posted their art on blogs, it’s so cool to read about their process too. That makes me feel more connected to the art and the person who made it. Plus, every time I look at the Diabetes Art Day site, I’ll pay attention to a new one. I feel like it’s a lame response, but my favorite is always the one I’m looking at, the one that’s captured my attention in that moment, the one that’s reflecting someone’s experience back towards me, the one that elicits an emotional response from me. I really do love them all!
How does art help you (or why is making art and being creative important to you) in your professional and personal life? Professionally, making art always helps me stay connected to the healing power of art-making in a more visceral way than just knowing or believing that to be true. It’s like the difference between knowing riding a roller-coaster is exhilarating or knowing chocolate is delicious, and actually riding a roller-coaster or eating some chocolate. By making art, I feel more connected to the experience of my clients in art therapy, which makes me feel like I can be more responsive and supportive to them.
Personally, making art or engaging in any kind of creative activity (writing, cooking, etc.) does so much for me, a lot of which is hard to label or describe. It gives me a sense of accomplishment, it reenergizes me creatively, mentally and physically, it’s an outlet for me to explore feelings and experiences that I might otherwise ruminate over, it gives me clarity on things in my life that might be causing me distress. Because I’ve been making art as long as I can remember, it’s also a way for me to get back to my roots, so it gives me a sense of comfort, like “coming home”.
Why do you think it’s important to show that you can find beauty in unexpected (or “ugly”) places? I’ve had diabetes for 33 years, so it’s been a significant part of practically all of my life, and thus it’s a significant part of me. When I hated it and wasn’t able to identify anything positive about it, that equated to hating myself, which was a terrible way to live because I was so unhappy and very self-destructive. Once I started to make peace with diabetes and began to identify the things about it that had enriched my life – the things about diabetes that were essentially beautiful – my whole life changed. I can’t say I love having diabetes, but I have an appreciation for it that I didn’t used to have, and it makes living with it easier.
Within the context of art-making, someone can scribble with all their might on a sheet of paper, and there’s still something beautiful in that. It might not be a traditional understanding of beauty, but the energy or the richness of the color or the emotion that inspired that scribble are all beautiful things. It’s easy to dismiss a scribble because it doesn’t appear to represent something, but when you look more closely, you see it represents a feeling or an experience, and that’s what makes the scribble beautiful.