Diabetes in Art: A Conversation with Kathryn DeMarco


Artist Kathryn DeMarco, a graduate of Boston University’s fine arts program, specializes in collage self-portraits and animal portraits. She is also a serious runner who has lived almost two decades with type 1 diabetes. She lives with her partner, Andrew, a sculptor, in North Carolina and works as a custom framer and sales associate at Craven Allen Gallery in Durham, which also shows her art.

Kathryn and I spoke recently about her attraction to collage portraits, the presence of diabetes (and cats!) in her work, artistic influences, and thoughts on diabetes in art and life.

Please tell me about your background and training as an artist.

I guess I always was an artist. In high school, because I was on the honor track, I couldn’t really take any art then, because art didn’t count as much academically. I always painted and drew in my spare time and was involved in clubs that had more artistic direction. I started college at Lafayette College in 1987 on a running scholarship, because I’ve always been a runner too. I broke my leg half way through the year on Christmas break, so I couldn’t run. I started painting more, and I realized that Lafayette wasn’t right for me.

I tried to look for an art school and also a running program, and I transferred to Boston University. I started at the College of Fine Arts, with the idea I would be on the cross-country team after red shirting one year. But the art took up a lot of time, and so I did not run on the team. I had really good art professors, and I learned a lot.

The BU undergraduate program is a very figurative one, and by that I mean there is a lot of life drawing, landscapes, still life. So, we would always have live, nude models. There were anatomy classes where we would draw the model and then overlay muscles and bones with a transparent paper.

At BU, in drawing class, for the drawing assignments, I started doing collages, because it’s kind of like drawing. You cut out your paper in lines, and you stick it down. I liked oil painting, too, but I got a better quality of work from the collages. When you do an oil painting you can correct the mistakes, but you have to wait until it dries a little bit. With a collage, if I didn’t like the way the muscles were looking or the face was looking, I could just glue a correction over it. I’ve kind of gotten addicted to that, just correcting, correcting, correcting.

Ah, interesting. That’s like life with diabetes, always correcting. What else about the collage medium has fascinated you enough to make a career of it?

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.

When I do commissioned portraits for people of their animals, I ask them a lot about themselves and I try to hide stuff in there that will ultimately amuse them later. If a pet has passed on, then I’ll hide funny stuff in the collage about that animal, or I’ll put personal stuff in there, like about the client’s work.

I’m working on an economics professor’s dog now, and I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to make it funny, being an economy thing. But I know the professor well and the dog, Noelle, was a therapy dog, and that’s useful stuff to put into the collage.

There are cats in some of your self-portraits. Do you, too, have animals?

We have five cats here and one dog. The cats figure in my work a lot. Balthus, another artist, used cats in his figurative work. His female figures are nude and often in provocative poses. I like the way Balthus’s beautifully painted and wonderfully composed compositions, including the woman and the cats, tell a story, though not necessarily a nice story. His work is definitely from a man’s view, and it’s not the most feminist thing to like as a female artist who considers herself to be pretty tough. But he also referred to himself as the King of Cats, and I’ve been doing cat paintings with myself forever, putting in a cat or even dog here and there, and so I relate to Balthus in that way.

Insulin is not a cure_Razzle Dazzle by K DeMarco

Tell us more about your attraction and approach to self-portraits.

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.

As to self-portraits, I’m a free model for myself, and there’s that. 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? And I’ve never seen anybody doing collage like I do it, with this strong emphasis on the figure.

The portrait that prompted me to get in touch with you, The Boss of Me, a starkly black and white self-portrait with your insulin pump, reminds me of a woodcut print by Käthe Kollwitz, you know?

I love her work. She has expressions in those drawings, such a strong charcoal line, that I just love. It’s good. Sometimes, when I do a drawing I call it a Philip Pearlstein style drawing at first when it has simple lines only and then as the shading builds up, a Käthe Kollwitz style, it starts getting more charcoal on it.

When did diabetes first make its way into your art?

I’m trying to think if I added it in deliberately at first. Probably only in snarky little bits. My first big collage ever, I did when we first moved to North Carolina in 1993. The image is a life-sized nude (me) standing in front of a man sitting at the table with a box of donuts and beer, of all things. A feral cat is at our feet. I think I was mad about the diabetes at this point, got it out of my system for a little while and focused on my art style and more pleasant content.

As you know, diabetes is with you all of the time. Looking in a mirror I would always see the pump on my hip. Lots of times the tubing would be within easy reach of the scissors…

But, actually drawing myself in what I call “the Bad Dreams poses” started because I wasn’t having incredibly good blood sugar control. It was probably ten years ago. I would get low blood sugar in the middle of the night, and I would just be crazy on the floor, sweating. And Andrew wouldn’t be able to get me to respond, or anything.

And, because he was also thinking like the artist he is, he started taking pictures. I started to use the pictures in the self-portraits. These are in motion, and sometimes the facial expressions are really kind of disturbing.

Starting in 2007, I got involved with the Diabetes 365/Flickr pool of photographs. I really enjoyed meeting people, who became pretty enthusiastic about my work in general. Today, I might hold up my meter in a photograph for a collage that I’m working on. Diabetes gets into my work through the photos. The pose where I’m holding my insulin pump was one of the ones for the Diabetes 365 pool. I wanted to solidify it by having a full on collage self-portrait where I’m alert, not only ones that portray the low blood sugar.

I liked that self-portrait the first time I saw it. The figure seems assertive or even defiant, but I get a sense of wariness from it, too. Plus, the presence of the pump and insertion site is an unexpected disruption of the figure. Besides your work, I haven’t come across any other painting, collage art, or sculpture that takes diabetes as its subject. Can you think of any?

I can’t, and you know, I’ve seen people manipulate their diabetes equipment into interesting shapes and take photos, but, you’re right, it’s mostly photos.

For diabetes in particular, the public may not want to see the sort of stuff where we’re not happy about our illness. And it’s one of those diseases that nobody really even knows you have unless you’re falling down somewhere.

Kathryn, what kind of response have you gotten to your art?

People respond well to the collages because they’re really entertaining, and there’s a lot in them to look at. However, the diabetes ones, I haven’t really shown too much of yet; they’re just on Flickr right now, where people do like them.

As for my regular self-portraits, people are interested in them, and I have sold quite a few of those, just the straight on self-portraits, usually holding a cat or a dog or scissors. There are a lot of scissor scenes in the pieces. About five years ago, I started putting the scissor in, like the trademark.

Would you tell me your diagnosis story?

It was 1992. I had just graduated from college, and I spent the summer up in Boston. Andrew and I were planning our move to North Carolina for September. And just before then, my mom and dad said, “Well, maybe you’d better have a physical. You’re going to go off our insurance now.” So I went in for a physical, and I had a blood sugar of like 400 and something.

The weird thing is, now that I think about it, I was going to the bathroom so much. I had lost about 15 pounds. I was still running every day and feeling fine with that, but I’m sure my energy level was down because of this. I was 22, an adult, so the doctor originally said, “Oh, that’s type 2 diabetes.” We treated it as if it was type 2. They gave me some pills, and they put me on a thousand calorie diet, which was awful. [laughs]

Shortly after I had moved to North Carolina in January 1993, they tested my glucose again, and it was still really high. I don’t think they gave me a machine, a meter, or anything like that, at that point. I had to go back up home to my parents in Connecticut. At that time, the doctor there said, “Well, maybe it’s type 1. Maybe you’ll want to try insulin.” I was on NPH or something like that, twice a day for a long while.

I’ve always had a real problem with low blood sugar, way more than with high blood sugar. And then I’ll overcompensate and be high and low. My A1C right now is 6.4. It’s been 5.8. It’s always between 5.8 and 6.6, so I keep it pretty good. It makes me mad. I’d like it to be lower than 5.8, but I think that’s the best I can do.

I got on the insulin pump in 2004. I haven’t been unhappy with it. But, I’m going to run out of infusion sites, I’m sure, and then I’ll want to do something else.

Insulin is not a cure_Is Anybody in There by K DeMarco

I’ve had diabetes since 1992, and I went on the pump in ‘03 or ‘04. I went on it because I was taking like five injections a day, and I was so tired of the five injections a day. My doctor said, “If you took one more we could really smooth out this spot right here.” I thought, “I just can’t do it. I can’t do one more a day. I can’t do it.” So then I switched to the pump. I am glad to have it, but I’m not one of those people who would say, “I love it.”

Sometimes I feel bad when I see ads for the pumps or the meters. One of them I think shows a tagline like, “It’s just like a pancreas, only it’s more attractive,” or something like that. What in the world? Are they nuts? I might have used that on one of the collages: Are they nuts? Then I think about the pumps’ fancy colors. I don’t want it to be a color. I want diabetes to be over with.

What my focus would be, if I could get my collages shown in a certain way, is that we don’t want to invest only in the better and better technologies. Let’s research a cure. Let’s not keep making pumps prettier, or whatever, because they work fine now. They’re good.

I agree.

I have a book about an artist, Charles Demuth, who was diagnosed with diabetes at 37 in 1920, just around when insulin was discovered. He didn’t live very long, because they weren’t testing blood sugars and all that.

Even though insulin has been available to treat diabetes since 1922 or so, it still is a burden for people with diabetes to stay healthy and prevent complications. It costs a lot of money. We have to be ever vigilant about food, exercise, and social situations because, even with good control, there is always potential to have too much or too little insulin on board. It is insidious how invisible the disease is to others, but how time consuming it is to people with type 1.

As an artist, you’ve been making these collages that illuminate some aspect of your life with diabetes. Now it sounds as though you’re starting to think about your pieces potentially not just as art, but also as advocacy.

Right. I have been thinking that I would get other people with diabetes involved and use their stories and images. As an artist I can communicate different things about diabetes, as I do about me and my pets. I would hope to do the same about others with diabetes. Everybody always says to me when I do an animal portrait, “Oh my gosh, you’ve got exactly what this cat looks like and his personality. How did you do it?” So that’s what I would hope to do for others with diabetes experiences.

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11 years ago

love your art and story!!!!

11 years ago

LOVE your art and LOVE your story!!

david terry
11 years ago

What a wonderfuly interesting (and informative) interview.  Congratulations to both Kathryn and the interviewer.  I should admit that I’ve known Kathryn since the mid-90’s and had no idea that she has diabetes. For what it’s worth?…..I’ve long thought of Kathryn as one of the two most strikingly healthy & vibrant women I know.  I invariably feel like a big, sodden, lazyass lump when she goes running by my front porch (we’re neighbors).  I expect she’s been amused when I’ve sincerely told her (as I’ve done acouple of times) that she seems sort of dauntingly healthy to me. She’s a very intriguing and accomplished artist, of… Read more »

11 years ago

very compelling artwork. the collages are wonderful. also, i appreciate your honesty.

11 years ago

I know Kathryn quite well and am so very fortunate to have one of her incredible collages.  She is a wonderful person and a brilliant artist.  If you live in the Durham area, I highly recommend stopping by the Craven Allen Gallery to see some of her work.

11 years ago

What an interesting interview.  Diabetes plays such a big role in our emotional lives – not just physical.  So it makes sense that it would show up in an artist’s creations.  Diabetes weaves it’s way into our imagination, too.

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