Lips First

Natalie Irish kisses her portraits into life.

Irish quit her job a couple months later. "If she gets sick and God forbid something happens and she goes to the hospital," Bateman explains, "it's very easy that she could meet her lifetime limit."

She took her chances. Irish stayed home and started creating prolifically, ignoring no medium. She used everything around her, even her own diabetes, to make art. She wove purses out of old ropes donated by her rodeo friends, and she knit Bateman's old T-shirts, which were too big ever since he adopted his wife's diabetic diet and lost 85 pounds, into bags. Parts of her insulin equipment became beads for jewelry, and broken pieces of syringes littered her metalwork. Irish even dug up her old lipstick collection and resurrected the lip print technique. "That's how I see the lip print: taking something I use everyday, and using it in a different way," she says. This time, she perfected it.

When digging through her lipstick container, Irish can rattle off the pigment saturation of each tube. It's taken years of trial and error, the results of which fill an entire box. "I own more lipstick and ChapStick than any one person should ever own," she said.

Instead of wearing a sterile medical bracelet, Irish chose to get the word "diabetic" tattooed on her wrist in case of an emergency.
photo by Mandy Oaklander
Instead of wearing a sterile medical bracelet, Irish chose to get the word "diabetic" tattooed on her wrist in case of an emergency.
A Type 1 diabetic, Irish has to keep constant tabs on her blood sugar with an insulin pump. Irish has been known to  incorporate some of her pump's parts into her artwork.
photo by Mandy Oaklander
A Type 1 diabetic, Irish has to keep constant tabs on her blood sugar with an insulin pump. Irish has been known to incorporate some of her pump's parts into her artwork.

Most wound up as mere test blots, but a few led to full-blown portraits. These taught her that kissing all day led to a bloody mouth and a headache, so Irish worked in spurts. Still, when she tried to explain the technique to her friends, they gave her blank stares.

Bateman hatched an idea that would explain the process to anyone who cared. He asked Irish's high school friend, videographer Chris O'Malley, to film Irish as she lip-painted. The resulting four-minute video showed the evolution of a second crimson Marilyn, even more detailed and impressive than the first. Irish showed the video to her ACC art teacher LaValley, who remembers it vividly. "I've been constantly surprised by the things she's been coming up with for years," he says. So when Irish said she wanted to show him something, he knew he was going to like it. "But I didn't know how much." LaValley sent it to all of his art buddies. Bateman thought it had potential to go viral and gain Irish more customers. He sent it to every art blog he could find, but no one bit.

Irish didn't mind. She never intended to get rich off her art, let alone become famous. She refused to hang any of it in the house, despite Bateman's pleas. "Once I'm finished with a piece, I don't ever want to see it ever again," Irish says. "I have no attachment, because every time I look at it, I see the flaws." For a long time, Irish gave most of her artwork away, sometimes to diabetes fundraisers and often to friends. "I've always taken my art seriously, but for a long time I never felt like I deserved to be called an artist," she says. Bateman kept telling her she was wrong, and that people would buy her stuff. It seemed a distant dream to Irish, who preferred to decorate her walls with art produced by her idols, particularly famed Houston-born poster artist Jermaine Rogers. Two of his framed limited-edition prints hang in her living room.

It would be Rogers, ironically, who would become Irish's biggest fan.

One spring day in 2009, Irish saw on a flyer that Rogers was visiting his hometown from New York. Rogers, who has designed posters for bands like Radiohead and David Bowie, would be visiting Houston to promote his new Vans sneaker design. Irish grabbed one of her Marilyn prints and headed off with Bateman to meet her art hero.

When Rogers saw the print, he was shocked. "As a painting, I thought it was awesome," Rogers says. "But then when I looked at it closely, I was like wait wait wait wait. These are lip marks. You did this -- with your mouth? That blew me away." He traded prints with Irish, scribbled down his e-mail address, and encouraged her to keep in touch.

She did, even though she was star struck each time they talked. Rogers hooked her up with a screenprinter he knew in Houston and told her to start making more prints of her work. "It wasn't real complicated, magic-door, Gandalf-type of advice," he says. "She's ultra-talented. I think she just needed to know how to access viewers. I personally believe that's all she was missing."

Then at the beginning of this year, Rogers became the first to commission Irish for a lip print. He asked her to do Jimi Hendrix. "Just that process with a person like Jimi Hendrix -- there's something weird about it," Rogers says. "I can't put my finger on it. It's a weird juxtaposition that I thought worked."

Irish was absolutely psyched. The final product, kissed with almost three tubes of an Urban Decay purple, now hangs across from Rogers' own painting of Hendrix in his Brooklyn apartment.

To Rogers, Irish has more in common with her subject than she thinks. "Like Hendrix, she's new. Hendrix came out to Monterey, and nobody had ever seen him before. He played a whole lot of behind the back, (with his) teeth, over the head, set the guitar on fire, all of that." That's Irish and her attention-grabbing lip prints. "What's funny is if you go back and watch the Woodstock performance, there's very little of that stuff. It's him. There's real content there."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

this is such the truth...she was married and cheating on her husband while he worked offshore...drinking and boozing with total disregard of her safety or the husband working his ass off for her and their future...

Mr. Ripley
Mr. Ripley

She's amazing! That's quite an ability.

Hopefully with fame she can use a real videographer who actually has talent to showcase her work who focuses on the artist and not a desperate attempt to get noticed too.


Natalie- Check out the wireless, tubeless insulin pump by Omnipod! You load the pod, put it on, and it lasts for 3 days. Plus the control module doubles as your glucose meter. My girlfriend lowered her A1C by a full point after about 6 months on the pod, and loves it in comparison to her old pump. Only down side is you cannot take the pod and reconnected it like a standard insulin pump.

On another note, I really enjoyed this piece, the story, and the artwork!

Gabriel Dieter
Gabriel Dieter

She sure is cool huh! I'm so happy for her to have the interest she deserves!