‘Top Talent’ winner wants to increase awareness of chronic illness

When Mary Metzger (BFA ’19) watched her younger sister navigate college, she noticed a few differences in their experiences. Her sister was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome and lupus at age 16, and her chronic illness raised challenges that Metzger had never considered. She soon started wondering if other students had the same experiences.

She decided to dig into the issue as part of an assignment in one of her Communication Arts classes: Sarah Faris’ Honors Studio.

She started by studying peer-reviewed journals that included research about the stigma around invisible illnesses, the psychological effects on people who live with them, and how they navigate school and work. She also went to VCU’s Student Accessibility and Educational Opportunity (SAEO) office and met with faculty to find out how the university is working to increase awareness and inclusivity around disabilities and education. Finally, Metzger conducted interviews with more than 30 students at VCU—many of whom she connected with after posting a call on Facebook, and through her personal network.

“It was more word-of-mouth, coming from people that I didn’t see every day, but they were in my circle,” she says. “They were friends that I had no idea had to navigate college in this way.”

Through her research findings and tangible student experiences, she found that many students with invisible illnesses often struggle with isolation, low self-esteem, frustration, and accusations of laziness by staff and peers. Metzger wanted to apply her skills in visual arts, design and communications to expand people’s understanding these experiences.

Metzger created a 16-page zine titled, But You Don’t Look Sick, pairing student quotes with natural, plant-based imagery to authentically share their stories. Illustrations of wildflowers—“you’re not going to see a single rose,” she says—also created a feeling that images of beauty and health don’t have to fit with traditional norms.

“Being able to make the invisible visible through design was super important to me and something I’m proud of,” Metzger says. “[I wanted to] bring their realities to light in a way that can bring comfort to students with a chronic illness, but can also educate others in a kind and generous way.”

Metzger presented a prototype of the zine at the end of the semester—but she knew she wasn’t finished. Over the next year, she incorporated feedback from her classmates and refined the imagery before, almost on a whim, she submitted the project to the Adobe Design Achievement Awards, a premier digital media competition for students and emerging creators.

Soon after graduating in May 2019, Metzger learned she was named a Top Talent in illustration. In addition to the name recognition, the award comes with a few perks, like Adobe licenses and access to industry professionals who are helping her further refine But You Don’t Look Sick. She was also selected as one of 32 Top Talent recipients who will represent Adobe at their MAX creativity conference in November. There, she’ll have an opportunity to hear presentations from filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, photographer David LaChapelle, Bobby Berk from Queer Eye, and acclaimed graphic designer Paula Scher.

Even has Metzger launches her career, she’s still passionate about getting the stories of students with chronic illness into as many hands as possible.

“I’m looking at e-book publishing and audiobooks now,” she says, “so that it’s more accessible to people with visibility difficulties. I’m looking at the best methods to get it to the largest number of people.”