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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Manufacturers do offer art supplies that have been detoxed, like water-based paints and vegetable inks, low-VOC solvents, and adhesives. If these can gain mass adoption, they could be quite convenient because they allow artists to use the methods they have been trained with and don't require an entire makeover of the artistic process.

But artists are skeptical about these eco-friendly options. "It's nice to say you're green," said Gottsegen, "but it's very hard to be green." Because artists want their work to last — perhaps for centuries — they'd rather not put their masterpieces at risk by using new products whose durability and longevity are as yet unknown.

San Francisco artist and curator Kate Stirr is interested in challenging the reigning idea of permanence with work that is more ephemeral, but she admits that it's nearly impossible to avoid traditional art supplies. "There is something really alluring about all of the art materials out there, and it can be paralyzing if you want to be totally green," she said. "You can't remove yourself from what your practice has been, because then you just stop making work. You have to just allow yourself to do what you can."

Also, the new green materials may not perform the same way. Rocket Caleshu, who is the marketing and communications coordinator at the San Francisco Center for the Book, says that even though the traditional print-making shop aims to green most of its inks and cleaners by fall 2011, "it's easy for us to fall back into using an old product because the non-solvent cleaners might take twice as long to work, and then not clean half as well as the noxious stuff."

The low-VOC and natural materials, like other green consumer goods, are also more expensive, and sometimes use misleading marketing, known as greenwashing. Citrus oil, or turpenoid paint thinner made from orange rinds, is commonly touted as a nontoxic replacement for turpentine and is promoted with the word "natural," even though the active agent in citrus oil, d-limonene, is classified by the European Union at the same level of toxicity as turpentine.


There are artists who believe that toxicity needs to be completely eliminated from creativity. They advocate a total shift in art practice that involves either bringing back pre-industrial art materials, like egg tempera; by reusing and recycling existing materials; doing digital art; or creating "social practice," a genre that creates art out of human interaction.

Suzanne Husky is a San Francisco multimedia artist who works almost exclusively with trash. "I find it totally irresponsible and criminal that in the 21st century, with all of the information we have about toxic art supplies, people are still using them," she said. In the fall of 2010, Husky completed a residency with Recology, the company that runs the San Francisco waste transfer station. Husky found the dump a treasure trove for her art. "I don't even know if it is obvious that my materials are made of trash," she said.

A group exhibition called Manufactured Organic that runs through March 26 at Root Division gallery in San Francisco features work that addresses the overall environmental impact of the art world, from the materials used to make the art to the energy used to prep gallery walls, light the gallery, and pack and ship the work. All of the artists featured in Manufactured Organic have gradually shifted their practice toward more ecological materials, using things like found umbrellas, discarded fruit peels, fungi, and live plants.

Berkeley-based Julie Seltzer is almost finished writing an entire Torah scroll at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, using millennia-old materials. She hand-writes each letter of the text with a discarded bird feather dipped in plant-based ink on calf-skin parchment. In this case, the materials will almost certainly last; Torah scrolls have survived hundreds of years with proper care.

San Francisco Art Institute ceramics professor John Roloff wants to prepare students to make informed choices about materials by teaching them about their full life cycle — from mining and manufacturing to use and disposal. In the fall of 2010, Roloff taught a class called "The Ecology of Materials and Process" in partnership with Mexican art collaborative ToroLab. His students researched the ecological, hydrological, and waste systems of Mexico City. Then they developed proposals for a range of art projects that may get implemented in Mexico City or the Bay Area that engage repurposed trash, bio-remediation, urban agriculture, and community composting.

San Pablo painter Rebeca Garcia-Gonzalez leads a group of East Bay figure painters and because she has asthma, she's has always been sensitive to how her art materials affect her. Unlike most of her colleagues, Garcia-Gonzalez takes care to instruct her students about proper ventilation and the hazards of working with paints and solvents in her classes at Richmond Art Center. "After we had an incidence of bad fumes, we banned oils from our shared studio," she said.

Artist Sasha Petrenko recalls how losing two of her UC Berkeley art department professors, Wendy Sussman and Irene Pijoan, to cancer, frightened her away from using any toxic materials. "I started out as an oil painter, smoking cigarettes, rubbing paint thinner on my hands, and playing with cadmium," she said. "Then Wendy got cancer and everyone was talking about how it most likely came from the materials she was using to make these enormous oil paintings where a whole wall was covered with VOCs, and she would be working in that for hours."

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