‘Art is not a mirror held up to society but a hammer with which to shape it’. (A quote usually attributed to German playwright and poet, Bertolt Brecht, but actually first said by Trotsky.)

Using different artforms as advocacy platforms is not new. In my time working in diabetes (18 years), I’ve been lucky to be involved in a number of different initiatives with foundations very much in creativity and the arts. Perhaps my previous life as a musician – and being married to one for over 21 years – means that artistic approaches are always on my mind when looking at how to tell the story of diabetes.

When planning for the IDF Congress last year, a gap came up in our session on advocacy and diabetes awareness initiatives. Our Living with Diabetes stream committee wanted to look outside the box and move away from traditional awareness campaigns. ‘How about we get Appleton in?’ And that’s how we had a street artist from New York appear on the program in Busan last year in a session with the same title as this blog post!

At that time, I’d not met Appleton in person before, but I had come face-to-face with his artwork. (He’s on Insta here.) There is something quite magical when wandering the streets of NY to look up and see a bottle of insulin stuck to the wall of an old building in SoHo, or in Chelsea. I’d snapped photos and shared them to Facebook, wanting to learn more about the artist: Who is he? What is his story? What is the response to his artwork? After meeting him in Busan, and then again at a mutual friend’s place for dinner in NY, Appleton hosted me and my family in his New York studio one rainy afternoon in January and I learnt a lot about his work.

Appleton on W 23rd street.

But even before meeting Appleton, I’d seen the power of how different artforms have the potential to talk diabetes in different ways.

Australian actor and playwright, Alan Hopgood’s play ‘A Pill, a Pump and a Needle’ from a few years ago, told the story of three women living with diabetes. Chatting after a chance encounter in a café over coffee and cake, this was a quintessential Melbourne story! But it was also a great way to start a conversation with those who were lucky enough to see the play. I sat in the audience a number of times, then took to the stage to be part of the panel discussion. Mine was one of the stories that had been brought to life on stage and it was incredible to hear the number of people who watched the play and said that they could see themselves in the women’s stories. ‘Their stories are my stories are their stories,’ I would think to myself.

One year, my team at Diabetes Vic held an art competition for World Diabetes Day, asking children living with diabetes to submit an artwork depicting diabetes. The only requirement for submission was that the artwork needed to somehow incorporate the Blue Circle. I remember the way these pictures offered a most meaningful and impactful representation of life with diabetes – in ways that we’d not seen before. I still have one of those artworks hanging in my office. Its 14-year-old artist managed to perfectly capture the pain of diabetes balanced perfectly with the hope she felt. I’ve been looking at it a lot in the last week, breathing in deeply and letting her feelings of hope wash over me.

A number of years ago, The Diabetes Hands Foundation asked for submissions for an anthology of poems by people with diabetes. Selected poems were compiled in the book ‘No-Sugar Added Poetry’ – a copy of which sits on my bookshelf and is frequently pulled down and perused. In her introduction, Lee Ann Thill says ‘From words, carefully chosen, purposely arranged, emerges a shared experience and mutual understanding’. In other words, peer support through poetry.

And while mentioning Lee Ann… Diabetes Art Day was created by this dynamic advocate and art therapist to encourage people affected by diabetes to use whichever artform they wanted to express diabetes. I remember sitting around the kitchen table with my family, trying to show how we feel about diabetes with coloured paper, glue sticks and rubber letter stamps and ink.

Illustrator, Janina over at Miss Diabetes is absolutely brilliant in her depictions of diabetes. And, of course, comics by Claire Murray are still my favourite diabetes superhero tales. And my friend Weronika at Blue Sugar Cube, creates stunning pieces – her Spare a Rose designs were so gorgeous.

Click to be taken to Weronika’s Insta page.

Australian advocate Jenna’s artwork is nothing short of stunning. I bought one of her beautiful images earlier this year and need to get it framed so I can stare at it endlessly when I should be writing!

Click to be taken to Jenna’s Insta page.

Melissa Lee has combined her beautiful voice, brilliant sense of humour and story-telling powers to sing diabetes in ways that get us thinking, smiling, laughing…and crying.

As for me? Well, I create through baking and have managed to create some pretty damn fun and delicious cookies to mark important days and initiatives in the diabetes calendar.

And of course, storytelling is an artform, and I know that for me personally, that is how I have connected and felt supported by people affected by diabetes from every corner of the globe. Words have a power that can convey the very helplessness, hurt, hope and heartbreak that is real in diabetes, and as I frequently say, the stories people tell have always helped me make sense of my own diabetes.

Art has the power to reach people in ways that other, more traditional methods don’t. Health campaigns are important, but sometimes they seem just one step removed from the reality of real life. Art has the power to bridge that step and bring people together, and provide a fundamental understanding of the story being told, and the people behind those stories.

So back to the quote that opened this post: art can – and does – shape how diabetes is seen within and outside our community; it can influence how people outside the diabetes community understand diabetes, and within the community, offer different ways to think of things. It can start conversations that encourage us to consider others’ ideas; it pushes boundaries and forces us outside our comfort zones; it gives voice to people in the community who don’t necessarily want to use words to express how they feel. Advocacy using art can also cut through the white noise of health campaigns – often they all look and sound so similar that they are easy to ignore. But for me, I think the most powerful thing they give is humanity and hope to a condition that is often so misunderstood.