For the past few months I've been involved in helping an incredible group of people organise ArT1st Live. Art1st was founded in 2019 by Professor Partha Kar, National Specialty Advisor for Diabetes at NHS England, to unite people who have diabetes and showcase their creative talents. When a live event was out of the question in June 2020, ArT1st went online and people submitted their art on social media. These were shared across various social media platforms and gained lots of praise, attention, turned into an online event and reignited the appetite for a live event.
Fast forward to Saturday night, and over one hundred people gathered at the prestigious Draper's Hall in London, most living with diabetes, some not, for Art1st live. The evening saw various pieces of art exhibited, various performances from people with diabetes, an auction and dinner. We were lucky enough to be joined by Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Ed Gamble. We witnessed some incredible talent and there were big smiles all round the whole time.
I was honoured to have been asked to speak about JDRF and the person with diabetes perspective, and reflections on the event. I've decided to share my speech here, because whether you were at ArT1st Live or not I think it rings true for everyone living with diabetes.
"It's amazing to see so many of you here celebrating the talents of people with Type 1 Diabetes in aid of JDRF. I know many of you will know about JDRF and their purpose, but I'll give you a brief rundown so we can remind ourselves of why we're all here tonight. JDRF fund research to cure, treat, and prevent Type 1 Diabetes - through work with government, academia and industry they accelerate research in the UK and within healthcare policy - they ensure that the outcomes of research are delivered to people with Type 1 in the UK. They provide support, information, resources and a voice to people with Type 1 Diabetes and their families.
I was diagnosed when I was 11 years old. I remember it so well. It was a sunny evening in June 2009. I remember the mouldy orange I was given to practise injecting with, and I remember doing my injection all on my own for the first time. I remember being given a blue drawstring bag with a book in it called "Type One Diabetes Made Simple", it was from JDRF and it helped me understand what insulin does - the information leaflets and resources helped us all cope with my diagnosis. I'm 24 now, and I've lived with it for 12 years, for half of my life.
We're all here tonight to celebrate the artistic talents of people living with Type 1. Through drawings, paintings, photography, music, crafts, dance, poetry and drama we are getting an insight into the minds of some very talented people.
Living with Type 1 Diabetes is hard. In the blink of an eye you're thrown into a world of injections, pump changes, carbohydrate counting, hypos, hypers, sleepless nights, hospital appointments and all the emotions under the sun as you learn to navigate what will become a very different life. It's unpredictable, it is relentless, and I'm sure all of us with diabetes are all too familiar with the term "burnout" - it's a constant learning curve, a constant balancing act, and you could in some ways say it's an art.
One early sense of the definition of art is closely related to the older Latin meaning, which roughly translates to "skill" and I think people with Type 1 Diabetes are rather skilled. It's not easy trying to replicate one of the functions of a major organ 24/7 and I reckon we are the only group of people who could correctly calculate the carbohydrate count for a plate of food just by looking at it. So much goes on behind the scenes, so that we can function and stay well, and keep up with our peers. If you have struggled with your diabetes like me, or you're going through burnout right now or if you hate it and it's the last thing you want to think about - I am sure you are handling it with grace, because just living with it can be tough enough.
I often believe that my blood sugar should be perfect, if I'm going to give insulin and put in all the effort then my blood sugar should be perfect, and if it isn't then what's the point? But the thing about art is that it doesn't have to be perfect. It can be a work in progress, it can be a case of trusting the process, and whatever comes out on the paper or the canvas is your best. And that is all we can do. Sometimes, we have days where our blood sugar really is perfect - and it is such a thing of beauty that lots of us screenshot it and post it on social media, savouring it forever, a good blood sugar day - immortalised, a reminder that it's not always bad.
And even when that line isn't straight, many of us have found art in it anyway - in the Libre graphs that look like cats, or in the Dexcom lines that look like a mountain range.
Art can be outwardly beautiful, or we can interpret it as just that. For example, I like brutalist architecture. Brutalist buildings are characterised by minimalist constructions that showcase the bare building materials. Some people think they're ugly, I think they're great. The structural elements being on show makes for some great lines and angles when taking a photo, and being able to see the materials means we can see exactly what went into making that building.
I often help out with a project called the Tree of Life project at the diabetes clinic I used to go to when I was younger. It's one of my favourite things ever. It makes such a difference to the lives of everyone involved. The concept is that we are all a tree, with roots, a ground, a trunk, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruits. Each one representing a part of you. Your branches are your hopes and dreams, your roots are where you come from, your leaves are the people you love, and so on. We all get to draw our trees, and I love seeing the way the children draw theirs - and seeing their imaginations come to life - I've seen some trees with pink leaves, someone once drew a baby whale where a squirrel would go, I've seen some multicoloured trunks.
These trees serve as a reminder that there is so much to us, so much more to us than just diabetes and we can withstand storms, like trees do. The one thing we always say to people when drawing their trees is that you don't have to be good at drawing, because whatever you create, that's you, that's your tree and that is art in it's purest form.
Art is what we make it, and life can be what we make it too.
Even if you're here tonight as an ArT1st contributor, or you're here as a guest, and even for those who aren't here at all tonight, there is no difference. No limit to your talent. We have all seen both the beauty and the pain in the colour blue, and we recognise that we are not limited in any way by the cards we have been dealt, but nights like these remind us that we are in some ways, enabled by them.
Living with Type 1 Diabetes can be so ugly, it can be so difficult and how wonderful it would feel to be able to throw in the towel and not think about it every again. The fact of the matter though is that we have no choice, and we carry on, performing a balancing act - walking that tightrope - and trying to master an art that can perhaps never be mastered. Above all, what makes us who we are lies in our hopes, in our dreams, in our talents."
The night was truly special, and it was magical seeing it all come to life after months of planning. The team did a spectacular job, in particular my first and best 'diabuddy' - Adrian Long - and it was an honour to be even just a small part of this event.