Toxic Art 

On shelves, in studios, and at schools, art supplies containing toxic ingredients pose risks to human health and the environment.

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Long-term exposure to clay dust leads to various respiratory illnesses, including silicosis, a terminal disease of the lungs that potters frequently develop. But there are no professional-quality ceramics studios that can fully mitigate these dangers — it goes with the territory. And in other ways, CCA is at the vanguard of sustainable creativity, offering numerous events and exhibitions dealing with environmental issues every year. From April 1-3, CCA is hosting the CraftForward symposium, which specifically addresses sustainability in the current crafting resurgence.

Foothill College in Los Altos stands out as a leader in integrating health and safety training into art education, but this seems to be mostly due to an individual professor's passion. Kent Manske, who runs the college's Print & Book Arts program, maintains what he describes as a non-toxic studio. He has inserted art materials education into the state-mandated curriculum, and has gone beyond what is required by the EPA to prevent dumping toxic materials into the solid waste or water waste streams. "I go overboard with cleanliness in the studio and try to create a culture of respect for materials," he said. "We cast an illusion that the studio is as clean as your kitchen — we only clean with vinegar, ammonia, and water." Manske also makes sure to source his printing materials locally, teaching students about the carbon footprint of their classroom activities.

Art schools aren't the only institutions that must educate workers about art materials. Professional printers, large-scale art studios, and art supply stores also fall under OSHA's right-to-know provision. Casual inquiry reveals that most of these places aren't abiding by the law either. One worker at the celebrated FLAX art & design store in San Francisco admitted that he had received no safety training in dealing with the myriad toxic materials in the store. "But all of us went to art school, so we know how to handle these materials," he said.

Yet if these employees attended Bay Area art schools, it's likely that they are not fully informed about the risks of leaks, spills, or emergencies. FLAX CEO Howard Flax confirmed that they don't do a special training for employees, but they do have MSDS sheets available for the most toxic products.


But just implementing thorough training won't get rid of the ultimate problem. Artists are still committed to using some toxic materials because they believe that they are the only means to create a particular texture, color, or effect. And in contemporary art, ideas reign supreme over choice of material. "My work, and work in general, should be pushed by the concept, and materials selection should always be secondary to the idea," said CCA student James Coquia.

CCA-trained sculptor Shane Selzer, who now lives in New York, says that in her field, "the most toxic stuff is the two-part urethane foam, which is increasingly popular as costs lower. It requires a full hazmat suit and respirators with proper filters, but even with these precautions, it's hazardous."

Mark Van Proyen, an associate professor in the painting department and the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, finds this regrettable. "Artists tend to minimize long-term safety in favor of short-term artistic satisfaction," he said.

But when legal restrictions make toxic materials too burdensome to use, artists must find substitutes. Maroger medium, for instance, was used by the Old Masters to increase oil paint transparency and is rapidly losing favor. It's made by boiling lead with oil and mastic, so it falls under OSHA's lead restrictions. Studios that use it are required to undergo very expensive lead monitoring and testing at regular intervals.

Similarly, the web site for the paint manufacturer Golden Artists Color predicts that regulatory pressure will soon prevent the use of cadmium and other heavy metals in artists' paints. And the green consumer movement, which has spurred major reforms in household products, could potentially do the same for art supplies, making urethane foam and turpentine as unpopular as BPA in baby bottles.

Karen Michel, who wrote the 2009 Green Guide for Artists, said, "I think the art world is very slow in catching up with the eco movement. When I was doing research for my book, I was surprised to learn that most of the major artists' paint manufacturers were not looking towards developing VOC-free paints like the interiors paint companies have. If Benjamin Moore can do it, then why can't artists' paint manufacturers do the same?"

It's not only a contradiction for the artists' paint industry, but an uncomfortable double standard for artists who live a green lifestyle and address environmental themes in their artwork. Artist Michael Hall notes that "some of the greenest people I know are artists, but then their practice is not so green." Surprisingly for the Bay Area, where so many consumers are committed to organic food, hybrid cars, and non-toxic dry cleaning, local art stores like Utrecht and Blick report having very few, if any, inquiries about environmentally-friendly products.

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