Diabetes Artist Kisses the Canvas

Natalie Irish, a Houston artist with diabetes, brings her portraits to life one kiss at a time—the lipstick is her paint and her lips the paintbrush.

Stephanie Guzowski
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Natalie Irish, Kisses the Canvas, Diabetes

Natalie speaks earnestly and excitedly about what first led her to strike at a blank canvas in her unique style: “When I was in high school I learned about the technique of making portraits with thumbprints. In 2001, I was putting on lipstick to go out one night. I blotted my lips on a tissue and got the idea of using lips in the same way as thumbprints.”

Just one year prior, Natalie was dealing with a diabetes diagnosis. “I was actually relieved when I was diagnosed because I thought I was losing my mind,” recalls Natalie. “I was sleeping all the time, I was constantly thirsty, I lost weight, and I’d poke at this lump of clay for months in my art class, without being able to create anything.”

When Natalie finally went to the doctor, her ketones were “through the roof.” She was hospitalized and put on insulin. Six months later, she began using an insulin pump, which she wears proudly displayed.

Since then, she’s merged both areas. She’s lip-painted portraits—including Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Vonnegut—and donates many of her artworks to support diabetes research.

Though it took time to get to where she is today, Natalie’s attitude remains positive: “Like anything else in life, you can put your own block in your mind. Or you can just...” she pauses, “get over it. Diabetes is a part of my life. But I’m not going to let diabetes define me. I’m an artist. I’m Natalie.”

Here’s her advice.

Find what works for you. For Natalie, that means using an insulin pump. She works from home, and doesn’t have a set schedule. “Sometimes, I roll out of bed and start painting and sometimes I don’t really get into the groove until late in the evening,” Natalie says. “My insulin pump allows me more freedom in taking care of my diabetes.”

On the inside of her wrist, she sports a tattoo: a medic ID symbol with the word diabetic and her diagnosis date, October 30, 2000. “I’d forget to wear my medic alert bracelet and necklace,” she says. “This way, it’s always there.”

Accept support. Natalie’s husband, Dennis—her biggest ally—sent a time-lapsed, canvas-kissing video to countless blogs until one reposted it. He’s also an active participant in helping Natalie manage her diabetes. “I’m so lucky that my husband was a medic in the air force—we definitely work as a team,” says Natalie. “There are times he says, ‘Do you realize you’ve been sitting at your drafting table for three hours—have you eaten anything?’ ”

Monitor frequently. “It’s the best way to know how your surroundings affect you,” says Natalie. She checks her blood sugar an average of five to seven times a day—“More, if I’m sick or stressed.”

Don’t blame yourself. “Diabetes is a process,” says Natalie, “and I’m still working through it emotionally. I have days where I’ll get a bad blood sugar reading and I think, Oh, what did I do wrong? But I shouldn’t ask that question. Sometimes you do everything right and you still get a blood sugar that’s going to make you angry.” She adds, “Not everything is in my control—this isn’t my fault—and I need to keep moving forward with this.”

Discover silver linings. Natalie, who’s taken nutrition classes, is fascinated by how the human body works. “Having diabetes makes you more self-aware and forces you to take better care of yourself. And that’s not a bad thing.”

January 2014