Haidee Merritt has had type 1 diabetes since age 2 in the early 1970’s. You might have caught her art on DiabetesMine where she’s made us chuckle, giggle, and cackle every Sunday for the past few months. She also uses her aesthetic talents as a private gardener where earth worms get tied into cute little bows and pests are hung upside down by their tiny feet. She can also take your old lamp and breathe gorgeous new life into it. The multi-talented Haidee has written a book which I imagine being a great conversation piece on a coffee table. That book got a great review the other day by the one and only Riva Greenberg. Haidee has quite the sense of humor, so I began by asking her a few questions to kick us off in fun way:
Sysy: What is the toughest part of diabetes, in your opinion?
Haidee: The toughest part is financial for me. It doesn’t have to be, I realize, but I’ll be damned if I’ll accept the expense of this disease without making a stink. You know when the worst thing about a chronic illness is money that there’s something seriously wrong.
Sysy: What is your favorite color?
Haidee: Favorite color is teal-sky-aquamarine-cyan-pacific blue
Sysy: Where do you get your sense of humor?
Haidee: I read Mad magazine on long car-trips as a child; when I couldn’t sleep I read Shel Silverstein; I collected Wacky Packs; I’m twisted and bitter and obscene which I think is hilarious – finding humor in yourself is where it all starts.
Sysy: Where in the world would Carmen Sandiego be if she had type 1 diabetes?
Haidee: The only answer to that is exactly where she is now. Didn’t you know Carmen Sandiego IS a diabetic?
Then I had my sister Ana, who is a type 1 at James Madison University studying studio art, to take over the interview:
Ana: Are you self-employed? I know both diabetes and art can require lots of supplies and constant restocking, how do you handle/balance the material aspects of diabetes and art? Did you ever struggle financially as an artist with Type 1? Have you ever chosen art supplies or working on a piece over diabetes supplies or taking care of your health?
Haidee: Yes, constantly. Not only art supplies but shoes and bags and travel. I cannot fathom life without making choices between my wants and my health needs. I also don’t do this decision-making without resistance. I want what every woman wants – maybe not literally – and the constant drain from the needs/demands of diabetes makes me angry (i.e. bitter). I’m as materialistic as the next person, admittedly. I want the sweat and time I put into the labor of making a living to advance my living situation, allow me to visit friends in different places, buy the art supplies I want to help in my self-expression, eat things I crave, give gifts to the people I love, save for a retirement that I hope to have. I don’t quite understand how a diagnosis of a chronic illness suddenly means that I’m financially punished for the rest of my days, I really don’t. I did a cartoon once that says, If I ruled the world Diabetics would get presents everyday.
I can only speak for myself here, but coming from a capitalistic society makes me feel there’s an injustice here, that my work – for myself and others – should somehow give me a sense of security. Plus, I have an (unhealthy?) sense of entitlement. I feel like I deserve these opportunities. And I’m not saying as a gift; it’s just that it’s a challenge to maintain a high level of enthusiasm when you’re only making-do.
Ana: You describe your humor as “dark humor” and several of your cartoons seem more pessimistic than optimistic, do you find that this kind of perspective helps you deal with diabetes the most effectively (finding humor in the realities of a chronic disease)?
Haidee: Yes, I think it does. I was a very rebellious and unhappy young diabetic. I went out of my way to cause harm to myself and my body. It was passive suicide for the 20 or 25 years in the middle of my life. There was a very sick and stubborn part of me that wanted a hand in my own future, even if that involvement meant complications or death. I used my anger (?) to exercise what control I had: to me there was more certainty in the damage that I could cause than the hope of coming out clean when rolling the dice. Pretty f**ked up. Anyway, that’s a tiny glimpse into how my attitude started to develop: I was challenging the disease. To say the the complications I’ve had to deal with are the punishment for my earlier actions doesn’t quite describe it accurately. I just tend to embrace the fear and confront the situation now because I’m the one who threw gas on the fire. As I’ve said before, I find it empowering to make fun of the disease and situation. I don’t feel that I’m tempting fate, which I could understand many diabetics might, because I’m pretty much sure I’m f**ked either way.
Ana: Have you found that the general public reacts well or relates to your depiction of life with diabetes?
Haidee: You know, I have. And I’m not afraid of some criticism. Jesus, I criticize the book all the time. It is a compilation of images I started during eye surgeries in my early 20s. The simplistic style – and even simplistic thoughts – are elementary when compared with my current work. Anyway, that’s ME criticizing the old stuff. As far as the general public goes, there’s been no throwing of rotten fruit and vegetable or anything like that. Of course it’s entirely possible that there’s an Anti-Haidee Movement somewhere that I just don’t know about. I’m happily ignorant of so many things. The most flattering and uplifting feedback has been from family members and friends of diabetics who have said they had no idea that diabetes was anything more than watching what you ate or taking insulin. They learned from my work. This unexpected purpose has really effected how I’ve grown and shaped myself as an artist, especially a public artist.
Ana: How do you come up with ideas for your drawings?
Haidee: Literally, most of my ideas sort of bloom in my head when I’m working on other cartoons. Something about the meditation of drawing releases my mind, allows it to wander away. I have a pad of paper by me in almost every room in the house where I might perch; when thought bubbles surface it’s only a matter of time before they pop and drift away. Some of the ideas are from my past, some my present. Like everyone who creates, I draw on my life experience and emotion, images I see in my mind that I want to capture in pen and ink; I’m a big fan of the Wouldn’t-it-be-funny-if and Worst-case scenarios.
Ana: Are there any other themes in your work besides diabetes?
Haidee: Tons. This diabetes thing just insisted it get some attention from me in the last 5 or 6 years. Insects have been a very weighty theme in my work. I like very detailed patterns and hair-thin lines. Believe it or not, I like color. Other than my cartoons and diabetes illustrations my house if full of the craziest mishmash of styles and brightly colored things. I also have that lamp business? I rewire and redesign lamps that I find at thrift stores and landfills. I like to make beautiful things from what others disregard. I like when they want their junk back because now they see it – or they see others seeing it – in a different light (no pun intended).
Ana: Are you a full-time artist? Do diabetes-related issues ever interfere with your work?
Haidee: I am a full time artist but that doesn’t mean I’m not also a full-time gardener or full-time diabetic. I have a gardening business for 8 months out of the year here on the Seacoast of New Hampshire. As a private gardener I maintain and prepare annual and perennial gardens. Like the other forms of art in my life I’m most draw to and concerned with the details. In other words, I’m not a landscaper. As far as other issues go, yes. My eye surgeries left me seeing double for the last 15 years and I’m colorblind to a certain degree. I have no depth-perception so I often appear drunk. That’s why my hair has been colored to the ditzy blond color it is now: I don’t do anything halfway. I can’t drive at night. I can’t feel my hands half the time. There’re quite a lot of challenges that I deal with actually; it’s nice to be asked about them in an interview. Like most diabetic issues, things look very normal on the outside. There’s so much energy expended to make myself just look normal, so much going on below the surface, that I’m grateful for an opportunities like this one to let people get to know me a little better.
Thanks so much, Haidee! We really appreciate your raw honesty and we look forward to following your work for many years to come. You can check out her website here.