Georgia Macqueen Black spoke to Poppy Nash to find out how NDACA - the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive, a project delivered by Shape - has helped her to express her Types 1 Diabetes through visual art pieces.

Poppy Nash, an artist and graduate from the Glasgow School of Art, has been commissioned by the National Disability Arts Collection & Archive (NDACA) to create original artwork that explores her experience of invisible condition. Poppy has ambitions to create art that fosters greater understanding of Type 1 Diabetes and the daily reality of those who have to manage it. Poppy tells us about her journey as an artist, how she started working with NDACA and how she connects this to the heritage of disability arts. 

GMB: Can you explain the process through which you decided to make artwork about your experience of Type 1 Diabetes?

PN: When I was working on my final project at Glasgow School of Art, I was also working on a project with Diabetes Scotland, looking at how our healthcare system treats young people with Type 1 Diabetes. I learnt so much from the project – a lot of that came from working with group of people who had so many shared experiences. This helped me to ‘own’ my diabetes in a way I hadn’t before.  

When making my artwork at college I was hit (like every other final year student I’ve met) by the overwhelming thought of ‘What am I going to produce now to sum up everything I’ve learnt and represents me completly?’.  It was a really stressful time and that stress hit right in to my Diabetes and I felt ill.

I couldn’t control my sugars and I couldn’t really think about anything apart from how I felt ill and how I had to make something - anything.

So I started drawing my numbers from the units of sugar in my blood after I test myself. I started printing my numbers and I started making my printed numbers into clothes and hats, until finally I managed to create a body of work that happily did end up representing the way that I often feel about having diabetes. I named the project ‘Obliteration’ and you can view the collection here:

How did you first get involved with NDACA?

It was when you, Georgia - NDACA’s Engagement Officer, invited me to show my work at the NDACA’s celebration event at the House of Lords in April 2016. I remember you approached me because – as another Type 1 Diabetic – you felt as though my work touched on the isolation and magnitude of managing so many things at once, and having no obvious physical signs to show for it. You explained that the artwork in NDACA was made by disabled people of the 1980s and 1990s who used the creative process to say something about identity and conditions. I was doing the same thing, many years later. 

My artwork was on display at the House of Lords, being looked at by arts and culture professionals and other disabled artists from the Disability Arts Movement. That evening, I felt like I had found another family. I had never really thought about disability arts before, or that there might be a whole group of artists making work about the different issues they face. Now that I have found Shape Arts and NDACA, it seems completely strange that I had not heard of them any sooner.

A red, beige and yellow colour field painting

After exhibiting at House of Lords, you were funded by NDACA to make new work for the collection. The grant is called ‘Face the Fear’, in reflection of disabled artists who face up to their condition through the creativity.  What made you feel that this NDACA commission was the appropriate vehicle for the exploration of your work?

This grant has been invaluable to me because it’s given me the time and space to develop ideas that I already had floating around in my head.

Sometimes when I start making art about diabetes, it feels very close to what I already manage on a day-to-day basis. It’s like delving into a part of my brain that usually I like to shut off. To really sit down and think about all the impact diabetes has on my life can be very hard, so in that sense, my creative process really is about ‘Facing the Fear’ of my diabetes.

For me, making work about the disabled identity involves an element of fear, but brings a positive outcome. Even though I’ll have spent all week looking at blood test results, when I’m printing, I no longer make that connection between numbers and sugar levels. The numbers feel like something new, and the blurred meaning relates to that process of how repeating a word makes it lose its meaning.

Can you explain the original artwork you’re making through the NDACA ‘Face the Fear’ commission?

What I intend to do for the commission is to imprint the overwhelming feelings I have about Diabetes into domestic, everyday settings. I want to visualise the experiences that Diabetes has on my life. The settings will take the form of three different scenes: in my bathroom, in a dining room and in my bedroom.

In the bathroom my intimate space is always shared with Diabetes - I am thinking about how I can make printed clay tiles for the walls and floating numbers of blood sugar levels in the water. In the bedroom my sleep is invaded with unwanted thoughts related to Diabetes, so I would like to make printed bed sheets and blankets. At the table in the dining room, I have to carbohydrate count everything I’m eating, an essential skill that I use to manage my diabetes. The dining room will be full of plates and bowls imprinted with math’s equations and nutritional food values.

It can sometimes feel bombarding, with far too much information and choices to an unbelievable extent. I can’t cope with all of this information related to managing my diabetes: ‘What shall I do next?’  ‘How do I feel?’ ‘Do I have everything I need?’ ‘Have I done everything?’

The articles, the things people say to me, the things healthcare professionals say to me, the results from my blood monitor, the beeps from my pump, the exercise I am about to do, the food I don’t really feel like eating.  My subconscious goes wild with all this low level information and decision making.

A painting of red and blue numbers on a light grey background

But no one can see it all because ‘diabetes’ is often invisible to other people – ironically this is particularly the case if you are managing it well. You work so hard to process all the information and act accordingly and it can feel like there is no recognition. It is a bit like looking at a duck and all you see is it effortlessly gliding along the water – you don’t see its feet paddling away madly underneath the water. I guess that’s why some people call it an ‘invisible impairment’.

The artwork I’m making for NDACA is motivated by wanting to externalise the invisibility of the condition. I want other diabetics to feel less alone and non-diabetics to become more educated, and I want to help and learn myself through the process.

How will the grant help you to develop your practice?

I think it’s already helping me develop my practice because I’ve started looking at creative processes I haven’t used before. For example, I’ve used the grant to make the most of digital resources like laser cutting and digital embroidery. The more opportunities that you have to try out different techniques and talk to people who can help you to use them, the more you understand what options there are available to you. 

The beauty of working with NDACA is that at as I develop my practice I am also developing my understanding of disability. I now have the opportunity to talk to and work with other people in a similar position to myself who are exploring these issues too.

What are your views about the significance of the archive, and of the work Shape Arts does as a disability-led arts organisation?

It’s of the utmost significance.  It is history.  When I saw John Kelly - the disabled activist and performer - sing his protest songs at the House of Lords I could feel the fire in the room.  It was completely inspiring. The artists from the Disability Arts Movement were so brave - they truly believed that art has the power to change people’s perception of disability. They weren’t afraid or apologetic and that’s the way it should always be. To me, NDACA and Shape in general are documenting, promoting and encouraging art that’s made with people’s souls. 

Click here to read the rest of our NDACA blogs!

Banner image & body images: Works from ‘Obliteration’ series 2017, c. Poppy Nash 

Editors note: This piece is an edited version of Poppy's interview.

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