By: Amy Mercer
In one of Devon Inglee’s artworks, a teddy bear, the symbol of childhood innocence, lies flat on its back with three menacing syringes piercing its furry tummy. In the background, the bear’s owner, a small girl, stands above the teddy eating an apple. Inglee writes, “In ‘Tit for Tat,’ a sweet girl contently eats an apple while hiding a large syringe behind her back, oblivious to her beloved, yet murdered toy. This piece deals with the process of anger, mourning, and denial associated with my personal diagnosis of a chronic disease.” For the 33-year-old art student, this work is about mourning and letting go of preconceived notions and ideas of what the future will be.
As a child growing up in New York, Inglee used to illustrate stories for family members. She remembers being encouraged by her grandmother, a professional artist. In 2005, Inglee left home and moved out west for college. She is preparing to graduate with a degree in art education and studio art. A printmaker, Inglee finds her materials at Home Depot and transforms flat boards of wood into beautiful, dark fairytales.
Two years ago, in the middle of her busy life as a double major art student, Inglee got sick. She Googled her symptoms (thirst, fatigue, and frequent urination) and came up with type 2 diabetes. The diagnosis didn’t seem to fit, but when she went to the health center at school, the doctor put her on metformin and gave her a box of test strips. “But I didn’t get any better,” she says. “So after two weeks I went back to the doctor and said, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I fix this?’ and the dietitian told me to restrict my food.” Inglee weighed 97 pounds before they figured out what was wrong. “The doctors told me I was lucky to be diagnosed with type 1 diabetes later in life instead of my teens,” she says, “but at 31 years old, I was set in my ways.”
Inglee’s mother, a registered nurse, flew out to Arizona to help her daughter get back on her feet, and after two weeks Inglee was able to return to school. “I was doing shots for a few months and then I went on the pump, and that was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says. Getting back into the studio was a helpful part of the healing process.
Before her diagnosis, Inglee’s art explored emotional issues such as her grandmother’s battle with breast cancer and the concurrent loss of feminine identity. She says, “My work is so personal. When I started to address diabetes in my art, I was trying to explain to the viewer what I had gone through: fear, anger, and frustration. I wanted to look at the difference between what I thought was important then and what I know is important now.” In “While I Slept,” a woman lifts her dress up to reveal a cluster of frightening monster faces with big eyes and sharp teeth. “This is the monster under the bed that we can’t see, the body attacking its own cells,” she explains.
In the series, “Remove, Replace, Revisit, Repeat,” a young woman is depicted wearing a scuba mask with a fish at her feet. In another work in the same series, she holds a lollipop and her face is hidden by a ski mask. The mask represents the invisible cloak of chronic illness and the decision we all must make about when to take it off, and with whom. These images are meant to push the viewer to wonder about what is being shared and what is being held back.
Inglee says her life is better now. “I have a lot of hope for the things I want to do. Every decision I make matters more, and I appreciate the things I have. This diagnosis made me realize that I need to make the most of my time, and I’m more excited about living,” she says. “I never want to be that sick again.”
Inglee finds support through resources like TuDiabetes, and she recently participated in Lee Ann Thill’s second annual Diabetes Art Day. She says it has been helpful to connect with others in the diabetes community. Inglee graduates in May and is looking for a teaching job in which she can share her talent with the next generation of artists and, most importantly, receive good health insurance.