Sculptor Eva Hesse was one of the few female artists to garner acclaim for her minimalist work in the 1960s New York art scene. So when brain cancer took her life at the age of 34, her critics and collectors were shocked; she had just begun what looked like a landmark career. But just as notable as her works — which are currently on display at the Berkeley Art Museum — is what some speculate was responsible for her untimely death: the toxic resins and plasters she worked with.
Since Hesse's death, artists have become much more aware of the hazards of certain art products. But it turns out that contemporary art supplies are just as dangerous — and seriously underregulated. On shelves of art supply stores, in private studios, in print shops, and in art schools, all kinds of toxic products are still in use, either because artists and instructors feel that they know how to use them safely, or because their nontoxic alternatives are viewed as less effective.
"People don't know what's really in this stuff," said Teresa Smith, the senior lab mechanician for UC Berkeley's sculpture department. "They don't even read the labels most of the time. It's a serious problem."
Label warnings are easy to ignore, since they're written in miniscule fine print, and even if artists read them, many lack the proper training to use them safely. And because artists often use materials in unintended ways and live and work in small, stuffy spaces, they may be ingesting, inhaling, and absorbing untold amounts of chemicals. The consequences can be serious. Exposure to paints that contain heavy metals, solvents, and varnishes that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), or to the toxic fumes from heated plastics and resins can lead to respiratory illnesses, kidney malfunction, and various cancers.
There's also environmental damage resulting from the mining and production of these materials, and from their improper disposal. At a time when the American public is becoming hyper-vigilant about lead in toys, BPA in plastic, CO2 emissions, and pesticides on produce, it's surprising that so few artists are talking about how art supplies figure into sustainability.
It's unclear just how widespread the problem is. In general, amateur artists are particularly at risk, because if they haven't been trained to be cautious about their supplies, they may misuse them. Older artists who learned to use products in the days before warning labels may have ingrained preferences for the more toxic stuff. And while younger artists tend to be more aware of possible hazards and exposures, and are more sensitized to environmental issues, nearly all institutional art studios contain some hazardous substances, unless they have deliberately gone green.
In a mortality study done by the National Cancer Institute in 1981, artists who devoted their lifetimes to working with toxic solvents and pigments were found to have a statistically higher risk of developing terminal cancer than the general population. The study has not been repeated since then, but many of the conditions noted in the study have not changed significantly for artists in the past thirty years.
San Francisco painter Michael Hall says his doctor blamed his exposure to oil paint solvents and varnishes for a serious case of pneumonia he contracted while in art school. He said that almost every artist he's worked with has complained of various symptoms — dizziness, lightheadedness, headaches, and nausea — induced by their materials. "I think a lot of artists end up creating problems for themselves, but they won't back down from it, they wear a badge of honor," said Hall. "They are suffering for their art."
Getting artists to talk about the conditions of their work and the status of their health can be difficult. Given the chance to publicize what they are doing, nearly everyone would, understandably, rather talk about the art itself. This "mystique of suffering" — putting up with various symptoms — may be why several prominent Bay Area artists declined to speak about their health issues, including an internationally known painter who teaches at a local college and may have chronic symptoms due to working with oil mediums and varnishes.
And art departments and art schools perpetuate the mystique by not implementing institution-wide safety or environmental training for students, depending mostly on individual instructors, studio managers, and graduate students to teach how to properly use and dispose of hazardous materials. In some circumstances, this appears to be in violation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) workplace regulations.
Mark Gottsegen, who runs a web site from Cleveland, Ohio, that claims to provide unbiased information about art supplies (AMIEN.org), has been asking for decades why toxic materials in art supplies are treated so much more casually than the exact same substances in a chemistry lab. "Why is art different from chemistry? I think it's just the culture of creativity," he said. "A lot of people think that if you try to inject technicalities into your artwork and learn about the materials then you are going to stifle it. But it isn't true."
As bad as things are now, the situation used to be much worse.
Between the 1950s and 1970s, it was common to experiment with completely un-tested industrial materials, and traditional supplies didn't have warning labels. Artists didn't understand the repercussions of heating and cutting plastic, metal, and resins, or the risks of inhaling VOCs. Rarely did artists wear masks or protective gear.