Lips First

Facing a large black canvas in a sunny kitchen, Natalie Irish puckers her painted white lips and cocks her head to the side, leaning closer to her target. People say it's rude to kiss with your eyes open, but Irish's baby blues are wide and concentrated. Crosseyed, Irish plants a small white kiss on the canvas, forming the first smidge of Kurt Cobain's nose.

Her husband Dennis Bateman sits in the adjoining living room with his back turned, slouched over their laptop. He's checking their YouTube account. Two years ago, he posted a video of his red-lipped wife kissing an image of Marilyn Monroe onto a canvas. The video collected dust until this week, when suddenly everything changed. "You broke 100,000," Bateman calls to her excitedly.

"Did we really?" Irish screams, white lipstick smeared past the borders of her lips. She looks like a pale, blond, ecstatic ghost. "That's 100,000 in less than a week," she gushes, rushing over to Bateman. She extends her arm for a high five, revealing a serpent cross tattoo on her wrist that reads "Diabetic" with the date of her diagnosis. It's much more stylist than a medical bracelet. "Damn," she says, still in shock. "It's so crazy to say it out loud!"

The world wasn't introduced to Irish until a few days ago, when a web site called Oddity Central linked to her YouTube video. Irish, 28, became an overnight celebrity. Her name and art have been splashed across national media and blogs, from Good Morning America and Huffington Post to Time and Glamour. Comedian Joe Rogan tweeted her video, and RyanSeacrest.com wrote an article about her. "But he got the story all wrong," she laughs.

Ever since the publicity, Irish has been getting fan mail and print orders from all over the world. Artists from New York City assume she lives there too and ask to meet her for tea. Nobody guesses that Irish lives in Houston – actually in Manvel, a drive-through country town nearly 30 miles from downtown.

Fame isn't something Irish ever imagined for herself, even when she quit the corporate world to become a full-time artist. Even though she had to deal with Type 1 diabetes, a life-threatening disease if not constantly monitored, Irish aggressively pursued her own art, which she usually gave away or donated. But now, Irish is thrust lips-first into the worldwide spotlight. And all of a sudden, the world is willing to pay for a taste.

Ever since she can remember, Irish has created art. Only once did she lose interest -- not just in art, but in everything. During her senior year of high school in 2000, Irish developed a severe case of what she imagined was senioritis. She was abnormally thirsty and would sometimes get up four times at night to go to the bathroom. Pounds sloughed off her already small frame, though she ate more than ever. Sometimes, Irish would come home from school so tired she'd fall asleep with her backpack on. She couldn't even bring herself to work during art class. "I would sit there for weeks and just poke at this clay and not do anything," she remembers. "My teacher was like, 'Natalie, what the hell is wrong with you?'"

Irish thought she was going insane, until a friend's mom told her that the symptoms matched those of diabetes. She went to the doctor a few days later, where she took a blood sugar test. A normal person's blood sugar is around 70-100. Irish's was 780. "That's where the meter stops," she says. Irish was immediately hospitalized and soon diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

Nora Saul is a certified diabetes educator and manager for nutrition services at Joslin Diabetes Center, a research affiliate of Harvard Medical School. Though she doesn't know Irish, she says that Irish's off-the-charts blood sugar signified a condition called ketoacidosis. Because the pancreases of Type 1 diabetics produce little or no insulin, the hormone that collects glucose, the body instead has to burn fat for fuel. "The acid level in the body increases, and it lowers the body's pH," she explains. "When that happens, that's deadly."

Irish was released from the hospital after a few days. With the help of insulin injections, she could finally concentrate on her art again. While getting ready to go to a music show one night, Irish had an art epiphany. She blotted her lipstick on a tissue and was captivated by the smudge on the crumpled paper. Irish ditched the show and kept kissing, trying to figure out what to do with these newfound marks. She then thought of a technique taught to her in high school, where portraits could be created entirely out of thumbprints. The same could be done with lips, she realized. "It's got to be Marilyn Monroe," she remembers thinking. "That's the perfect candidate for red lipstick." She grabbed her cheap red lipstick and got to work. A couple weeks and half a tube later, she had kissed her first icon onto canvas.

Everyone who saw Irish's lip print loved it, and although Irish thought it was interesting, she didn't know what to do with it next. "I was very unsure of it," she recalls. Not that she had much time to think about lip-painting. Irish was off to the University of North Texas for its renowned metalsmithing program, and canvas-kissing soon flew off her mind. Something she couldn't forget about so easily, however, was her diabetes. Irish found she was extremely sensitive to insulin, and the long-lasting injections were difficult to fine tune. She was up to seven injections a day.

Irish decided to go on an insulin pump, a tiny computer strapped to the body 24/7. A small needle remains beneath the skin's surface to deliver one type of insulin automatically. The other type of insulin needs a bit more attention; right before pump users eat anything, they must count carbohydrates and enter them into the pump to determine the correct dosage.

Should a Type 1 diabetic misuse a pump or not take enough insulin, the consequences can be dire. "Eventually, they'd get very very ill, fall into a coma, and die," says Saul of the Joslin Diabetes Center. "It can happen very quickly, especially with someone on a pump. The reason is the insulin used in a pump, as opposed to the long-acting insulin they use in injections, only lasts about four hours. You're using it for the whole day, but at any particular point if the pump stopped, you'd only have about four hours of insulin in your body."

At UNT, Irish was still growing accustomed to her diabetes and pump. She would sometimes get sick and miss class. When teachers threatened to drop her whole letter grades, Irish went to appeal to the disabilities board. "The lady at the desk actually said, 'Diabetes? Well, don't you just have to take insulin and not eat candy?'" Irish says. Deciding not to go through with her appeal, Irish walked out. Soon after, she packed her bags and moved back to Houston, even though she'd only been at UNT a year and a half.

While in Houston, Irish took sporadic art classes at Alvin Community College. There, she met her pottery teacher and mentor Dennis LaValley, chairman of the art department. LaValley was impressed by Irish's ability to create things others couldn't imagine. "She'd try to make shapes that people haven't seen before. She would try to ask the clay to do things that clay normally doesn't do," he says. Irish was a rare student, he says, and she would sometimes have to miss class because of her diabetes. "It would hit her hard, and she'd have to disappear and take care of herself." But she always came back.

Meanwhile, Irish found the love of her life, Dennis Bateman. Bateman was married and she was engaged to someone else, and the four became friends at a concert. After a while, Bateman and Irish broke their relationships off and started dating each other. It was a perfect partnership: Bateman, a former medic in the Air Force, knew how to take care of her. "She calls me her murse," Bateman says, laughing. A photographer, he also shared her love for art, and especially for her art. He begged Irish to pursue it fulltime.

It was the perfect plan, absent her diabetes. "It's sad that so much of being able to do artwork is dependent on health insurance," Irish says. She got a job working the front desk at a local veterinary clinic, and art was relegated to her free time. It would be her first and last job in the corporate world.

The first year was uneventful at the clinic, which Irish doesn't want to name. But for almost the entire second year she worked there, her diabetes seemed to be getting worse. Irish's blood sugar levels were either way too high or way too low, even though she was now on an insulin pump. She would fall ill out of the blue, and Bateman would have to leave work to get her. Her co-workers ignored her when she was sick, Irish says. "They treated me like I was faking it." One day Irish passed out, hitting her head on the counter as she went down. A coworker called to her from the other room, Irish remembers, and nonchalantly asked if she needed an ambulance.

Irish became afraid for her safety. Since she didn't look sick, no one believed that she really was, Irish says. She asked for a transfer, but the company denied her request and instead tried to force her resignation, according to Irish.

A week later, Irish received a letter from Medtronic, the company who makes her pump equipment. They were issuing a recall on faulty tubing that administers insulin. The batch number for the affected tubes matched that on Irish's equipment.

Finally, Irish had proof that she wasn't faking it. She made a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which resulted in a right-to-sue letter. Irish planned to sue the company and, should she receive any compensation, start a nonprofit diabetes fund. But the EEOC gave her the wrong cause number. By the time they sent the right one, Irish said, the 90-day window to sue had expired. "Nobody was held responsible, ever," she says.

In a strange way, diabetes was nudging Irish toward the life she always wanted – that of a fulltime stay-at-home artist. Irish knew she wanted to quit the clinic, and she and Bateman soon realized there was one way back into the health insurance loop. They could get married.

Marriage would destroy their plan of living together forever without any unnecessary titles, but practicality trumped idealism. So they drove to Vegas one weekend with Bateman's boss, who refused to let them get married alone, and found a drive-through chapel. Bateman piggybacked his T-shirt and jeans-clad girlfriend down the aisle. They traded no rings, and Irish kept her last name. "It's not the Middle Ages anymore," Bateman says.

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.

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."

Irish sometimes worries about being typecast into only a lip-painter, but Rogers is confident in her talent: "If you can paint a picture like that with your lips, kissing the canvas, then of course you can do some amazing stuff with your hands and with brushes." You just have to make a loud noise, Rogers says, to get people to look.

White gauzy sheets are draped from the ceiling of Chris O'Malley's spare bedroom, acting as makeshift diffusers for the bright floor lights. Baby oil, Vaseline, and tubes of lipstick are strewn across the bathroom, while a keg of home-brewed beer chills in the bathtub. This could pass for the set of a low-budget porn. But videographer O'Malley is filming Irish as she creates her newest lip painting, one the Houston Press commissioned for this issue's cover.

First, O'Malley shot Irish lip-painting Marilyn, followed by Hendrix. Today, Irish will kiss the likeness of a brand-new star: herself.

Her online store is nearly cleared of lip prints, all of which are signed and limited-edition. "It gives the normal everyday person a chance to buy and afford your artwork, and also it becomes collectible because there's only a few," she explains. Irish sold out of Marilyns, and she's almost out of Hendrix prints. Even Ripley's Believe It Or Not! wants a piece. "They're going to buy some originals," she says. "I'm more excited about that than anything. Freaking Ripley's? I never imagined that this would be seen in any other light than just a weird way of painting."

Irish painted and scrubbed the canvas for today's self-portrait a week ago, creating a textured effect for one of her first mixed-media smooching sessions. Once the Vaseline resist dries, the canvas will be ready to kiss. But while Irish chats with O'Malley in the studio, red drains from her cheeks. She looks woozy and reaches into her back pocket to check her insulin pump. "My blood sugar's really high," she tells O'Malley. Whoops. As she rushed to get here early in the morning, Irish ate a granola bar and forgot to give herself insulin for it.

"Uh, do you need to go for a run?" O'Malley asks, confused.

"Do you want me to go to the hospital?" Irish replies with a weak laugh. "I need to lay on the couch for 15 minutes."

When she emerges from the living room a bit later, Irish is smiling and apologizing. Bateman calls her cell to check up on her. She explains the granola bar fiasco. "I'm not completely fucked up, but I also can't see 100 percent straight," she says. "I'll deal with it. I have to work."

Irish hangs up and faces the blank canvas. She steadies a pencil in front of her nose, charting the invisible coordinates where she'll kiss herself onto her canvas.

Game time. In the bathroom, Irish slicks on her tangerine lipstick, planting a test smooch on the mirror. Her color is back, and she's ready to work. "Better not ever wash that mirror," she yells to O'Malley playfully. "It's gonna be famous."

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