With yet another artist passing away in their prime, https://urbanwallart.wordpress.com, I thought it was time to write about the hazards of being an artist, that is, the medium*.
There is documentation of many historical artists who died from contact with their materials, including a more recent study from the 1940’s to 60’s Health Hazards Manual for Artists. Many contemporary artist materials are dangerous and the artist is in constant close contact with often not enough protective equipment or safety in their overall set up. Familiarity can lead to a casual attitude with safety in using materials, or the artist may just not be aware of the hazard.
In my lifetime as an artist to date, I’ve been in close contact with solvents such as white spirits for fabric printing in confined spaces with inadequate ventilation, inhaled ammonia based inks when spray painting fabrics, handled inks and powder form dyes without adequate protective equipment, and more recently, handled and inhaled eucalyptus dyes with outdoor ventilation but inadequate protective gloves or a fumes mask.
I don’t know how many printmakers have died from brain tumors from inhaling fumes from inks, cleaning solvents and plate making techniques. I also don’t know how many aerosol artists inhaling solvents from their paint will go the same way. Working at an artist based facility for a few years, there was a thin film of ceramic dust on our floor underneath the ceramics studio every day and MDF sawdust from the furniture studio. Clean up methods and ventilation was addressed but how much is enough?
All commercial dyes, inks, paints, etc come with a Materials and Safety Date Sheet (MSDS), which details the risks of chemical exposure and the level of protection required to minimise risk. What we don’t have easily to hand is the results of constant interaction with chemicals, or the interaction of one chemical with another such as the break down of dye atoms when using discharge dyes making the dye carcinogenic. The danger of constant skin contact with discharge dyed or some chemically dyed clothing is not readily known, nor the effect of dyes released to water ways and gradually breaking down over time. http://toxicfashion.org/chemical-txtugly.html
The problem with any chemical use is, what level of toxicity is a safe level, or is a slow build up of any level over time dangerous? I haven’t read any data on the safety of exposure to natural dyes, such as eucalyptus. The fumes from simmering different leaves vary and some smell downright nasty but does strong smell equal toxicity (as it usually does in cleaning solvents)?
Late sculptor Bronwyn Oliver was in constant contact with copper wire and “in 2013, it was reported that analysis of a sample of Oliver’s hair contained a very high level of copper, nearly 8 times normal.” She died from suicide with reported deterioration of her mental health over several years leading up to the event.
I was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis after being hospitalised with liver failure four and a half years ago. (Coincidentally the symptoms first became apparent the week I started this blog.) What causes the disease isn’t really known, but it can be triggered by chemical exposure. Several years before that time but not within six months of the flare up, I’d been dyeing with eucalyptus dyes, and for several months leading up to the beginning of symptoms, handling chemically tanned leathers and skins. The specialist said a flare up often happens slowly over time and remains undetected until symptoms appear.
How is it possible for an artist to keep their practice entirely toxicity free? I still haven’t found the answer to that, but use solvent free water based inks, will only mix water based powder dyes (fibre reactive) outdoors with a ventilation mask, use wheatpaste glue and avoid any solvent based products. I’m moving towards a digitally printed outsourced process where the dyes are inkjet or sublimation printed onto the fabric to reduce waste. Having said that I still use carpenters glue or PVA to stick together paper for wheatpasting, and the PVA has low toxicity risks:
Working with safe methods and materials as an artist today is a massive challenge, and comes with the constant updating of awareness and vigilance in every area.
RIP every artist who has died for their craft
*Disclaimer: I know nothing about the materials this artist was using or the cause of his death, but am commenting generally on the passing of artists in their prime and questioning if there is a link between their materials and early death. I’m not a medical or scientific expert.