Art to Die For

With yet another artist passing away in their prime,, 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.

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:

“Acute Effects
May cause gastric irritation.
A moderate eye irritant.
Repeated or prolonged skin contact may
lead to irritation.
Not normally an inhalation risk due to low
vapour pressure ambient temperatures.
Chronic Effects
Knowledge is based on that of the
constituents. Repeated or prolonged skin
contact can cause irritation.”

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.


Digital Printing on Fabrics

In the continuing quest for creating the perfect eco fabric (short of simply re-purposing existing fabrics) I’m experimenting with digital printing.

Galaxy Design
Digital design from hand painted fabric

To date all of my dye and print techniques have resulted in one-only lengths of fabric, with hands on mixing of dyes and inks, fabric preparation, printing, dyeing, clean up, fixing, washing and pressing.  The amount of wasted excess dye, water and power use and disposal of salty/soda ash/printing ink infused water made me question if traditional craft methods of surface design is the most eco friendly and sustainable process?

Original hand painted fabric
Original hand painted design on silk with fibre reactive dyes

I started thinking about the artists and craftspeople who have health issues from constant contact with raw materials.  The build up of accidentally ingested dye powder in the lungs, eczema from handling printing inks and chemicals (gloves don’t work with lino block printing!) the fumes from dyeing with eucalyptus leaves, the caustic effect of soda ash, salt, and constant washing by hand.

So is there a safe and eco friendly method of surface design?  Is the artistic integrity in the hand crafted process of creating the fabric?  With competition from countries where labour and the cost of living is much lower, yet the skill and level of craftmanship and design is high, is it financially viable to use hand crafted techniques to create one-only fabrics?

A few years ago a friend and I experimented with digital printing on fabrics.  A local printer offered sublimation printing (essentially a heat method of bonding dye to synthetic fibres) to placement print our designs.  It was exciting to see a digital design that was originally a mixed media collage reproduced on fabric.

However, I didn’t like working with synthetic fabrics.

Digitally printed text fabric
Test piece digitally printed on organic cotton, natural coloured base

The next step was find a digital printer that could print on natural fibre, such as silk and cotton.  A high quality printer in Sydney was using fibre reactive dyes on pre-treated fabrics.  The resulting fabric from other designers looked fantastic, but the set up and printing costs including the special fabrics was too expensive.

Recently I came across a digital printing website in the USA that pigment prints onto natural fibres, with a selection of organic fabrics and silks.  The method seems to be extremely low waste, as only the required amount of pigment is used when printing the lengths, with minimal pre and post fabric handling.   The printed fabric has no odour or ‘handle’ so is like a dyed fabric.  The only down side is that the print is on the surface only, so does not penetrate the fabric like a dye, and like all hand printed fabrics, needs care with washing and drying.

Digital textile samples
Same design printed in digitally altered colours on different fabrics

This method of printing is affordable for studio production, especially compared with the cost of making hand crafted fabrics.  Digital printing opens experimentation with surface design.  Artwork can be scanned into or created on the computer.  Whole designs can be the width and (limited) length of the fabric.  Hand painted fabrics can be reproduced with some experimentation (as shown in the samples, some adjustment is needed with colour intensity vs fabric choice).   Even the look of eucalyptus dyed fabrics can be reproduced, though the integrity of the fabric is questionable!

See the Useful Links page for digital print sources.

Dyeing with eucalyptus leaves Part 6

Leaf Imprinting

The following is the method I use for imprinting leaves onto fabric and works most successfully on silk organza.  It works well on a variety of leaves except for very thick eucalyptus leaves. Continue reading Dyeing with eucalyptus leaves Part 6

Dyeing with eucalyptus leaves Part 5

Solar dyeing

This is probably the most environmentally friendly form of dyeing with Eucalyptus leaves.  All you need is a glass container with a screw top lid, leaves and water.  Solar dyeing works best in summer when the sunlight is strong, but good results can be achieved in winter if the jar is kept in a sunny place for longer. Continue reading Dyeing with eucalyptus leaves Part 5

Dyeing with eucalyptus leaves Part 4

Simmer Dyeing Part 2

Most eucalyptus leaves will yield a range of golden-brown to red-brown colours without using any additional mordant.  As mentioned in a previous article, the colours are fast in protein fibres such as wool and silk. To extend the colour range, different mordants in the form of additives or containers, or both, can be used.

Here are the results of my experimentation to date, all use the simmer dye technique: Continue reading Dyeing with eucalyptus leaves Part 4