Artist and school teacher Jen Jacobs grew up in Long Island, New York. She was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 12. “I had been dramatically losing weight,” she says. “I remember my parents buying me cookies, chocolate and ice cream to boost my weight. Of course, it had the opposite effect. I was lethargic, always missing school, and my mouth was so dry that my lips stuck to my braces.”
Now 27, Jen has managed to live very well with diabetes. She received her master’s degree in art education from NYU and is a full-time art teacher at a public school in Manhattan where she lives with her husband. In addition to teaching, Jen creates art, often about diabetes. She has exhibited her work at JDRF events, and one of her pieces was featured in a medical journal. She writes about diabetes, too. You can see Jen’s diabetes-related work on her website Type 1 Diabetes Revealed.
I had the opportunity to talk to Jen about her diabetes, her work, and how the two come together.
How did you and your family respond to your diabetes diagnosis? Were there big changes in your home after your diagnosis?
I didn’t resist the changes that come with diabetes too much. Instead, I tried to embrace them as best I could. I shared glucose tablets with friends, and demonstrated How To Test Your Blood Sugar in front of my science class.
The diagnosis was surprising because there is no history of diabetes in my family, and there was no good reason. I never asked why me?, but my parents did. My well educated father even tried to “cure” me with foot reflexology. I guess diabetes can bring out desperation in people. I smile at that now because I know he was just trying to protect me.
My family was and still is very supportive. If I cried, they were there. If I laughed, they were there. If I took the wrong dose of insulin, they were there. I am one of three siblings, and I suspect the other two felt I was getting more attention. My parents, and my mom in particular, have always been a big part of my diabetes. I still depend on this support, as much as I depend on insulin. Other changes? Routine. And carbs. Everyone started eating low carb simply because I was eating low carb. Pasta and rice were kicked out, and no one complained.
How old were you when you became interested in art?
I became interested in art in high school. It was one of my favorite classes, but it was really a hobby back then. I started to come up with original pieces in college, that’s when I began taking it more seriously.
When did diabetes start to play a role in your artwork? Does it surprise you to find that diabetes is a theme in your work?
Diabetes entered my artwork during my senior year of college. It appeared in my sketchbook, and I never saw it coming. It felt natural, and I wondered why I hadn’t made “diabetes art” sooner. Art is all about self-expression, so I think it makes sense that I feel a need to express my feelings about diabetes, such a big part of me. I’m inspired all the time because diabetes is all the time.
Which artists have influenced you?
One of my favorite artists is Marc Chagall. He inspires me as an artist.
I can see that in Once Upon a Cure. I don’t know if I’m interpreting it correctly, but what I saw there on the clock was an insulin syringe merging with a sickle of death, as if the syringe is shooting life into the sickle. I read a wonderful book about Chagall by Jonathan Wilson, who suggests Chagall’s work attempts to merge opposites. I think that’s what you’re doing, too, with the sickle and the syringe.
I love your interpretation and that’s part of the piece. It’s also about time. People with diabetes are so intertwined with time. The sickle is also a question mark. When to eat? When to test? When is the cure coming?
Can you tell me about a few of your other works- maybe Shot Sites Exposed, Permeability, or In(sulin)dependent Woman?
These pieces are about issues specific to women with diabetes. Women often have a heightened awareness of their bodies. Women with diabetes are not only aware of how they look on the outside, but they’re aware of what’s going on inside their bodies, too.
Shot Sites Exposed is about vulnerability. We can have healthy looking bodies, because diabetes is invisible. Yet, there are all these shot/pump sites that people don’t normally see because they’re on our thighs and abdomens. In this work, I’ve put them out in the open. Our bodies are pin cushions. There’s this constant dichotomy because it’s invisible yet, it isn’t.
In(sulin)dependent Woman is a reminder that women with diabetes can be strong, independent, beautiful women, even though we poke ourselves with needles. Again, there’s this conflict- we can never be fully independent, because we so greatly depend on insulin. The funny thing is that everyone depends on insulin, but without diabetes, you take it for granted. We all take things for granted if we’re lucky enough.
Do you feel a significant difference between your diabetes-related work and your other work?
Yes. All of my artwork comes from my heart, every piece with its own inspiration, but the diabetes work is so personal. There’s more emotion behind it. People contact me from all over the world about my diabetes art; it’s rewarding to hear that your work touched someone. Diabetes can feel so isolating and making a connection through art is powerful. It gives the work more meaning.
Have any diabetics influenced or inspired you?
I’m inspired by everyone who lives with diabetes, every day. The nature of diabetes pushes people, and I think this is key. If you want to be healthy, you can’t just sit around and twiddle your thumbs. You have to be conscious of everything you eat. You have to be aware all of the time, and you have to be active. I think this responsibility nudges people with diabetes to do extraordinary things. That’s why so many of us are activists, in our own ways. For me, it’s my art. For others, it’s maintaining a blog, facilitating a support group, or bike riding 100 miles, or running a marathon. Following the tremendously important things other people with diabetes are doing reminds me that I’m not alone. It pushes me to be my personal best.
You teach art to children. Do you tell them about your diabetes? Have you ever had a student with diabetes?
I haven’t mentioned my diabetes to my students, only because it hasn’t been relevant. When you teach, there’s a fine line between professional and personal, and while I like to connect with my students, I am conscious about what I tell them about my personal life. If it ever came up for some reason, though, I’d certainly be open and honest about it.
I haven’t had any students with diabetes. Occasionally, I’ll spot a kid with a medic alert bracelet and wonder, but it always turns out to be nut allergies. While nut allergies aren’t a walk in the park, I’m always relieved to learn that it’s not diabetes, because it would break my heart.
On a related note, I think about diabetes a lot at school, because I teach seventh grade, and that’s the grade I was in when I was diagnosed. I’ll see kids by their lockers, and have déjà vu of myself in seventh grade, at my locker, testing my blood sugar. It’s hard to believe I was walking around with diabetes back then. I didn’t know how young I was, but now, as the teacher, I have a different perspective.
ASweetLife’s Jane Kokernak interviewed the artist Kathryn DeMarco, a type 1 diabetic, about her art and the role diabetes plays in it. The interview closes on the question of whether Kathryn has started to think about her diabetes works not just as art, but as advocacy. I’d like to ask you the same question. Is your artwork a form of diabetes advocacy?
Absolutely. Advocacy is one of the wheels that drives my art series. I call it Type 1 Diabetes Revealed because I want to reveal diabetes in a fresh way, through art. There’s a lot of misunderstanding and ignorance surrounding diabetes. But what does diabetes really look like? I hope that when people view my art, they’ll get a true sense of diabetes.
Jessica Apple is the editor-in-chief of ASweetLife. She writes the blog The Natural Diabetic.