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Art and Diabetes: “Appleton was here”

Appleton has a mission: to raise awareness of type 1 diabetes through his art, both on the street and in the studio. Diabetes Voice had a chance to visit his Chelsea studio for a brief chat.


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Appleton

Appleton has a mission: to raise awareness of type 1 diabetes through his art, both on the street and in the studio. “Appleton” is the artist’s tag used as a kind of street art avatar. Often Appleton’s street art and studio work intersect, creating vibrant images, mixed media installations and prints. Appleton developed type 1 diabetes at the age of six, which was discovered nearly too late. Surviving a coma for four days in hospital, his belief that all people “are too young for type one” relates to the threat of complications which are so hard to escape. Appleton has become a kind of Kilroy for people living with diabetes – spreading his iconic images all over American cities and rural locations. We had a chance to visit his Chelsea studio for a brief chat. 

Your street art name is Appleton? Where did that come from?

Appleton is my grandmother’s maiden name and my actual middle name. I take great pride in it.

Where did you grow up?

I am from Northern New Jersey, USA.

What is the history of diabetes in your life? Your family?

Before I was born, my older sister Beatrice died at age seven years of unrecognised diabetes. She died of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). I developed diabetes about seven years after she died. I say her diabetes was unrecognised because in the 1970s awareness was low and doctors thought that children like my sister were suffering from something simple like the common cold or the flu. They didn’t get it. Some doctors still misdiagnose diabetes. A part of what they recommended was to drink a lot of fluids so urinating a lot didn’t seem odd. Why doctors didn’t screen then, and still don’t today, is beyond me. A lot of kids are still dying of unrecognised type 1 diabetes, Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA) and coma. I was comatose in the hospital for 4 days before I woke up. I was lucky – I survived.

Why did you turn to art? Why put diabetes at the center?

My work has evolved over many decades. I speak with a good deal of humility. I have always enjoyed taking things apart or putting things together. As a little kid, I wanted to fill the house with pictures. We didn’t have anything on the walls or in the house. I am the youngest of four brothers. My parents divorced when I was two. We had no pictures because there was this absence of a family unit. I was drawing and creating then. When I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age six, I began collecting everything to do with my diabetes. I specifically kept almost every bottle of insulin that has gone through my system. A life time of bottles—forever a reminder of what I’ve been through for over 40 years. These insulin bottles have become iconic images I use in my art to bring awareness to the streets.

Can you discuss your new diabetes installations?

I have created ornaments with children’s shoes and insulin attached for placement in parks or other areas in honour of my sister Beatrice and other children for awareness, entitled “Diabetes is coming to a child near you”. I found all these lost little shoes in my traveIs. There is something about a child’s shoe—seeing it alone which evokes a sense of lost, momentary thoughts about a precious little ones’ life.

When I first saw your paste-up of an insulin vial high up on a bridge in New York years ago, it surprised me, and I couldn’t decide if it was an advertisement or a trick! It made me laugh. Can you tell me about that?

Yes, I climbed a ladder 18 feet high for that particular vial of insulin placed just below the High Line pathway facing out to the Hudson River in Manhattan New York maybe 4 years ago.

Is it hard to climb for these really high street art installations?

No, I learned a lot from my cats over the years.

Speaking of domestic animals, I notice dogs figure a good deal in your work? Does that have anything to do with dogs having a significant role in Banting’s discovery of insulin?

No, not specifically, but cats and dogs definitely play an important part in my life. Dogs can be the soul of the whole family, especially when one comes from a broken home like me. The spirit, inspiration and selflessness that animals unconditionally give, is one of God’s great gifts to us. I couldn’t live without their friendship in my life. My work has several references to my animals. My old German Shepherd “Boy Boy” had been with me on almost every single occasion I was working on my street art. Today I have “Boo-Boo” — named at the rescue shelter — to help me continue the cause.

What can you say about the significance of your street art in general and what you want people to feel?

My work represents a tribute to my sister, all people living with diabetes and even to myself. Like I said, we’re all too young for type 1 diabetes! Even people in their fifties are too young.  Too young for type 1 represents the fact that my sister died at seven years old of type 1, and I almost died at age six and all of us living with the disease have nearly died many, many times. We’re too young because while insulin allows us to survive, living with diabetes is slowly killing us. No one deserves diabetes.

One inspiration for my work is what Kilroy represented to so many G.I.s (soldiers) during WWII. The text “Kilroy was here” inspired so many men at war. If you were a soldier and you were hungry, tired and dispirited and you looked up on a barrack wall or a ship and saw “Kilroy” it helped. It lifted a soldier’s spirit and gave hope. We’re all soldiers – diabetes soldiers. It’s the communal up. A tribute to all who live with the disease. When other people with diabetes see my work I imagine they feel a sense of hope, community and encouragement—to be positive and of course–that we are not alone.

How do people respond to your work? What do they say?

I had a show a couple of years ago, at the Art Expo on the pier (Chelsea, New York). I love open shows because people walk by and hang out looking at my work. I like to invite them to talk to me – tell me what they like. People unfamiliar with diabetes will mention the colors, what they like – they’re always curious about the trains or the shark. When I begin to explain what’s behind my work and talk about the seriousness of diabetes, people see how serious it is. Many people I have spoken with – those who know nothing of the nightmare of diabetes – leave with a much better idea of it.

I’ve heard people connected to diabetes say my art speaks truth –and that’s why they like it. Like the shark moving through the insulin bottle which represents big Pharma’s greedy role in insulin accessibility and affordability.

Where is the best place to see your street art? Your studio art?

My work is spread across the US from NYC to Los Angeles and many cities in between. Street art has a way of disappearing—via weather and other artists’ work. Los Angeles and New York are most prominent. In New York, visuals on diabetes are up in a variety of places.

There’s one of my images that’s been up for many years now on a door at West 26th and 11th Avenue in New York. It’s all faded, weathered –like this aging person with diabetes. I have put my art overseas — from Nice to Norway.

What do you enjoy most about your work and life today?

When I started collecting insulin vials and syringes when I was a child and then later – test strips for blood glucoses when they were developed, I never thought it was special. I was just doing what I loved. Still do. Every time I create something new, I cut all the pieces by hand. I never use Photoshop –all work is hand cut— placing and arranging real pieces by hand. I like waking up very early like 4 or 5 am. It is peaceful and becomes your time—the hour of just birds and a slowly awakening city. I find these hours to be the most peaceful and creative.

 

Thank you Appleton for giving us the opportunity to learn about you and your artwork!

Appleton’s next studio exhibit is scheduled for November 2018 in Los Angeles, California USA.  

To see more of his work, click HERE.

 

Elizabeth Snouffer is Editor of Diabetes Voice

 

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3 Comments
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  • asoaresf

    August 31, 2018 at 9:40 am

    What other ways can we increase and promote the awareness of diabetes in such creative ways ?

  • Michiel Vergunst

    August 29, 2018 at 10:12 am

    I really enjoyed this article, thanks!

    • michielvergunst@gmail.com

      August 29, 2018 at 10:14 am

      Looking forward to the next one.