Suzanne Gardner is a remarkable member of the diabetes community: a blind artist whose work has been displayed worldwide and sold in various shows, she is striving to push herself beyond her limits and inspire others with diabetes.
To commemorate the launch of Diabetes Awareness Month this past Monday, we spoke to Suzanne about her career as an artist and why she continually aims to provide hope to the diabetes community.
Suzanne was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Aged seven, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. While she took different courses in drawing, sculpture and painting as a youngster, she never expected to become a professional painter. Instead, she went on to study sociology and gerontology (ageing) in Toronto.
In 1999, having had diabetes for 25 years, she began to experience problems with her vision. She was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, and while surgeons were able to fix her sight to a degree, she was left with partial sight in one eye and classified as legally blind.
“At the time I was having laser treatments and surgeries to help stop the bleeding at the backs of my eyes,” said Suzanne, who had to quit her office job when her vision loss became too severe.
“During this time I began to take some art courses to help me cope with the possibility of losing my vision. I had always loved painting and drawing as a child so it seemed natural for me to be drawn back to art as a comfort in a difficult time. It took many years of painting before I actually believed that I could sell my work. “
Learning new techniques
Working with such a prominent disability proved challenging, but Suzanne eventually learned which techniques maximised her strengths.
“I use very high powered magnifying glasses and an impressionistic style that doesn’t require detail to help me create paintings that give the feeling of movement.”
Putting dark colours next to light colours helps Suzanne to see them more clearly; if she put blue next to green then she wouldn’t be able to see the difference.
As Suzanne became more proficient on the canvas, she became particularly captivated by acrylic and oil paintings, which enabled her to reveal layers of blending colours and textures, incorporating very bold and contrasting shades.
“I really only learned how to appreciate the brilliance of the colours after my vision was almost gone,” added Suzanne, whose current work focuses on capturing the intimacy of dance.
“I frequently paint dancers to signify the interconnectedness of people. We all need to depend on one another to move through life. I want people to see that even with some adversity you can thrive. My paintings are a celebration of life through colour and movement.”
“When I became diabetic 43 years ago there weren’t the medical advances that we now have such as home blood glucose monitoring or the insulin pump. I wasn’t able to test my blood sugar back then so we used a very basic and fairly inaccurate urine test to determine a range of where your blood sugar sat.
“This led to much difficulty in managing and controlling blood sugar highs and lows. Since then much has changed and we now have blood glucose meters, insulin pumps, and many other wonderful advances.
“I work very hard at keeping my blood sugars level and I now have the tools to help me better manage my disease. The insulin pump has given me the ability to have a constant flow of insulin which in essence should regulate blood sugars. “
Suzanne, who is inspired by impressionists such Claude Monet and Bobbie Burgers, has had her paintings sold all over the world – three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond owns one of her florals – and whenever she sells work to clients in other cities or countries, she asks in return for a picture of them beside the painting. She says this always makes her feel proud whether the client is famous, an old friend or a stranger.
Above all, though, she hopes that people with diabetes-related complications are inspired by her work and view her as someone who does not let comorbidities hold her back.
“The most important thing that I think I can offer to other diabetics is that life is full of challenges such as diabetes or the complications from diabetes.
“This shouldn’t mean that you need to give up your dreams. In fact, for me, the loss of most of my vision helped me find my passion.”