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Diabetes test strip art, created by Amzie Reeves of Blue Circle Art Therapy

Amzie Reeves in North Minneapolis believes in the power of art as mental health therapy, and in particular as a channel to help people better cope with diabetes.

A 16-year veteran of living with type 1 diabetes herself, Amzie actually wrote her Master's thesis on the topic. And she's now created a company called Blue Circle Art Therapy, that provides exactly what the name implies: art therapy for people touched by diabetes (the Blue Circle being the international symbol for this illness).

This notion of art therapy for diabetes isn't entirely new. Some years back, there was a social media initiative called Diabetes Art Day, in which people shared their therapeutic work online. That was started by longtime T1D-peep Lee Ann Thill in New Jersey, who's also an evangelist for the power of art therapy for promoting health and diabetes optimism. That effort unfortunately faded over the years, but you can still find emotionally charged pieces from across the community online (thanks, Google!).

We chatted with Amzie recently to learn about her D-story and passion for art, and the new art service she's now offering to help others.

 

No April Fool's joke

Amzie Reeves

Amzie's diabetes story began on April 1, 2003, when she was 19 years old and in college. That was her diagnosis date, but years earlier when she was 14 her older brother was diagnosed at age 16. So when Amzie wasn't feeling well on a college Spring Break trip to Florida, she and her mom both thought T1D might be the culprit. Looking back, Amzie sees the humor in that April's Fool diagnosis and tries to laugh about it as much as possible.

As a young college-aged adult living away from home so not close to her mom or T1D brother, Amzie says she didn't have much of a support system back then. That's a big reason she found comfort in art.

"I remember it not being very encouraging, which was unfortunate," Amzie recalls about her interactions with doctors around her diagnosis, and the lack of support groups and social media connections at the time. "I dealt with it on my own, and not in a good way. Eventually, I decided that I needed to take care of myself."

Already enrolled in the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul at diagnosis time, Amzie says in those early days of diabetes she immediately began to turn to her own creative work to help cope and manage. She didn't have a concrete plan as to her future path in art, so the T1D sparked a new direction for her. She began creating self-portraits, and looking up chemical symbols related to insulin or health to incorporate that health science into her artwork.

"My art started changing," she says. "It may not have always been about diabetes specifically, but more about the body and not being able to trust it. That helped me, as a way to get strength to keep going. The art-making fell into place because of my circumstances and environment. There was this struggle and inner turmoil artistically, with this extra layer of chronic illness."

Reflecting on her early artwork after being diagnosed, Amzie makes reference to a few key pieces:

"Blue Circle" was a painting she describes as a small collage created in 2014, when she was overwhelmed and distressed, and was searching for connection.

"Bowl of Dreams" is a photo she took of dried cheese in a bowl (from macaroni and cheese), though she thought it ended up looking like test strips! She says it represents a T1D metaphor: finding beauty in the disgusting/discarded items in life and taking the time to stop and appreciate that, because you just might have to look a little harder to find beauty in those things.

And one piece in particular stands out, created at age 23, four years after her diagnosis. This was long before the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), when people with diabetes could still be rejected for coverage, and/or kicked off their parents' insurance at age 18 unless they were full-time students. Amzie says she received a letter from her insurance company rejecting coverage. She covered that rejection letter with used test strips so that only the words "pre-existing condition" remained visible, illustrating how she was feeling at the time in trying to make sense of the complicated payer lingo that just sounded like legalese.

She showcased that piece at a local gallery, made copies of the image, and provided envelopes for visitors to put a stamp on and send off to the insurance company. Amzie says she never heard back from the insurance company, so this didn't change her coverage denial, but the value was in raising public awareness. And she found it therapeutic to share the experience and watch the response by observers.

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Artwork created by Amzie Reeves of Blue Circle Art Therapy

"A lot of my artwork then was focused on my processing this diabetes life and what this disease means to me -- from what this is doing to my body to how I'm handling everything," she says. "Over time, it became less apparent in my artwork and it became more of a way to handle the day-to-day stress of diabetes, without actually being about diabetes itself."

But before she pursued art professionally and eventually created her own small business, she took a career detour that helped shaped her path further.

 

Discovering art therapy

After art school, Amzie went into education and began teaching mostly at the elementary and middle school levels, along with specialty education. As a teaching assistant, she found a lot of joy in working with children. It wasn't art-specific, but she says she continued her personal artwork and looking back, she's noticed how she made numerous child portraits at the time -- logical given her full-time job as a TA.

She also ran a personal art studio at the time. Her own painting was no longer concentrated on health and diabetes topics, but all of that still influenced her interests in exploring what else was possible professionally. Along with the studio, she was showing her work around the Twin Cities area and "hanging around with artist friends," Amzie says.

"Being around creativity brings a lot of hope for the future," she says. "It's good energy, not to sound too hippie-dippie. But it just feels good when you make something." 

Amzie found an art therapy program and fell in love with the idea, and that's what led to her where she is now. In art school, she had majored in painting, but says she also loved different forms of artwork -- print-making, sculpture, and design. Her go-to lately is acrylic painting.

When she started grad school, Amzie hadn't originally planned to pursue art therapy specifically as a part of her professional career. But she fell in love with it organically, she says.

In 2017, she wrote her Master's thesis on the benefits of art therapy as it relates to and T1D and health: "Navigating the Chaos and Uncertainty of Type 1 Diabetes." The project started with chronic health conditions in general and she narrowed it to type 1, and how art therapy as well as talk and group sessions can help fill the big need for more mental health care for people with T1D.

During grad school, Amzie gave birth to a healthy had a baby boy who is now 4 years old, and as a stay-at-home mom she wondered how she'd re-enter the professional workforce part-time. That's how she decided to open her own private practice.

 

Processing diabetes frustration through art

Enter Blue Circle Art Therapy, which opened its doors in early 2019.

She describes her services as "art therapy specifically designed for people navigating the chaos and uncertainty of type 1 diabetes." While offering programs, Amzie is concurrently working on her state board-credentials for art therapy as well as her counseling license.

Her outfit offers group, individual and family sessions that guide people through exploring their feelings and expressing them through art. Sessions run one to two hours for fixed fees between $100 and $140. Amzie notes that it's important to understand that you don't have to draw or "be an artist" in order to benefit from these sessions.

The program is very flexible, so sessions can vary as to what specific materials are used (clay, paint, collage, sculpture, etc.) and themes presented. In the "pre-making" part of the session, she talks with the child/family/PWD about what led to them to her in the first place and what they're dealing with. That leads them to deciding what to create. Then, it's a matter of guiding and directing during the art-making process. Directions can be as specific as "outline your body on this large paper, then fill it with color, shapes, and imagery with these markers of how it feels when you are low," or more open-ended like "think about how you feel when you're low and create something."

Her process of art therapy generally follows the American Art Therapy Association guidelines.

Amzie observes and takes notes during the sessions, and afterward there's more discussion delving into what the participants have created and the thought-process involved. Another option is word association, where the person writes down specific words or phrases that come to mind when looking at the art.

"Most importantly to note is that clients are not creating art for me to judge and interpret. The benefits of art therapy are in the process of 'creating' and in their own interpretation of their own artwork -- it’s a discovery of self," she says. "The artwork typically stays at my office/studio while I am seeing a client, because it enables me to refer to it in the future. If the client wants to keep the artwork, they can. It is their choice, since they made it after all. When this happens l use photography to keep a record."

Some of the core benefits for participants she cites are:

  • Improve Self-Management of Type 1 Diabetes - learn skills to focus, build discipline, and live a healthy life, while allowing room for grace when it comes to imperfections
  • Alleviate Symptoms of Depression - fosters positivity and provides something to look forward to
  • Improve Communication Skills - promotes self-expression; helps develop communication skills and ability to reach out to others
  • Reduce Stress - T1D daily demands can take a toll on the mind and body; helps convert negative energy into positive habits that promote lasting healthy habits
  • Improve Problem-Solving Skills - encourages people to seek positive solutions to problems rather than ignoring them 
  • Build Self-Esteem - individuals who have more confidence & social skills are more likely to develop healthy T1D habits; helps build the self-awareness and self-esteem necessary to tackle various social situations and life challenges with T1D
  • Provide a Positive Distraction - help people focus on the positive while keeping their minds off of things that are going “wrong.”

Amzie says she's getting a lot of interest from kids and families at the moment. In the future, she might add in parent-specific programs or some aimed specifically at adults. 

"This is my dream," she says. "I describe myself as an empathetic listener who uses art as a tool for self-expression, and I think that can be something that helps others. T1D and everything related to it can be an exhausting rollercoaster that you are forced to ride -- fear, anxiety, depression, burnout, guilt, and shame come and go. I want to share the power and benefits art therapy has when it comes to dealing with the mental burden of a chronic illness."

She also explains that during the few summers she volunteered at Camp Needlepoint in Minnesota, she saw how fun and beneficial peer support can be to mental health in diabetes.

Her Minneapolis-based center "can be a place to go if someone isn't feeling well about their own life with diabetes, or potentially a place to find peer support from those who 'get it' when it comes to diabetes," she says. That's something she felt was sorely missing at her diagnosis when she was 19.

While her art therapy business is only local now, Amzie hopes that the foundation she's building is something that many across the Diabetes Community can learn and benefit from.

Maybe you can, too. There's always a collection of used diabetes supplies on hand, so why not start by seeing how creative you can get with used test strips, CGM sensors or Pods?