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Tips on Greening Art
Categories: art, health, sustainability

Space, Materials, & Process: Tips on Greening Art

By Michelina Docimo

Great art picks up where nature ends.  ~Marc Chagall

Branches #1 by Nadine LaFond, Earth pigments & acrylic gel on organic cotton paper (framed in recycled barnwood), 12" x 9 1/2", 2007

Art is a process – creative, thoughtful, pedagogical, scientific, chemical, and natural.  Often we think of artists painting happy plein air landscapes at an easel or spinning clay concentrated over a potter’s wheel.  But just like any occupation, there exist risks, not only in their creative endeavors, but in their studios, the materials they use, and the processes applied.  With ecology and economy being hot talk topics, artists pick-up on these social sensitivities and respond by prompting public awareness, seeking solutions, and catalyzing change.    Here are some practical tips for artists, by artists (and me – a sustainable building advisor), to help minimize health risks and make art in a greener way.

Breathing Easy

Debra Lombard, a civil engineering LEED AP and fellow CSBA, came to understand the importance of indoor air quality (IAQ) at a very early age.  Growing up in New Orleans, her mother’s art studio was attached to the family home.  Only separated by a glass sliding door that was often left open, Lombard recalls fumes of oil paints, turpentine, linseed oil, and other solvents mixing together like a chemical cocktail.

Constantly sick as a child with allergies and other ailments, and still chemically sensitive as an adult, Lombard now devotes her career to making buildings healthy.  Lombard shared that with time her mother also began getting sick with headaches and body pains and now suffers from blindness, which may have been directly or indirectly triggered by the use of chemicals in her studio.  Lombard herself is a potter and can’t stress enough how important adequate IAQ is due to all the fine dust created during the grinding process.

IAQ is critical in every building, and especially so in spaces where there is heavy use and mixing of materials and chemical reactions as in art studios.  IAQ is a measure of how healthy the air in an interior space and is often affected by sometimes invisible factors such as hidden moisture and mildew spots, pollutants and particulates, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in paint and finishes, formaldehyde in furnishings and carpets, and many other emissions.  It is strongly recommended to consult with an HVAC contractor to make sure that proper ventilation is in place to supply fresh air and remove stale air.

Not all studios are planned with windows to provide natural air flow.  Sometimes even when a space is furnished with windows, depending on the process taking place in the room, even a slight draft can affect the artistic outcome.  Hoods, fans, and other mechanical ventilation systems can be determined by the size and volume of the space as well as usage frequency.

Lombard recommends steps like wearing a mask, vacuuming surfaces, and showering after being in the studio as simple ways to decrease exposure to particulates that can enter your lungs.

Natural Selection

As consumers, the market is inundated with endless choices of almost anything imaginable.  With the current economy though, many are gravitating toward the most economical, which unfortunately doesn’t always translate into the most environmentally friendly choice.  Artists tend to always be on a budget because of the heavy consumption of materials on a daily basis.  Experimentation with materials and process as well as second thoughts of the artist are also factors that lead to consuming more material.  But many artists, especially sculptors, are looking into creating works with found materials that have been disposed, recycling used objects into works of art.  Sacred Heart University’s Gallery of Contemporary Art’s current exhibition Contemporary Souvenirs demonstrates how five artists are embracing this transformational art process.

But when an artist needs to create works with new materials, they can make a wise selection by purchasing green materials.  Mixed media artist Nadine LaFond of Art Lives Studio combines found objects like knobs, shutters, levers, and bones with new sustainable materials into assemblages.   LaFond’s studio celebrates art as a life force with philanthropy at its core by creating collections of art and music that make a positive impact on community.  Here are a few green art supply links where LaFond finds earth pigments, organic papers, sustainable fabrics, and recycled frames.

Natural / Non-toxic Paints
Natural Pigments: http://www.naturalpigments.com
Earth Pigments: http://www.earthpigments.com
Glob Natural Paints: http://www.globiton.com
Organic Cotton Paper: http://www.langdellpaper.com

Sustainable Fabric Supports
White Lotus Home: http://www.whitelotus.net/organic-natural-fabrics-covers
Near Sea Naturals: http://www.nearseanaturals.com

Recycled Frames
Brogan’s: www.barnwoodframes.com
Paradise Hill Designs: http://www.etsy.com/shop/ParadiseHillDesigns?section_id=5023504

Barnwood Treasures – least expensive {email: barnwoodtreasure@bellsouth.net}

Here are a few ideas to green your art supplies:

  • When purchasing art supplies, read labels and material safety data sheets (MSDS) which will contain information on hazardous ingredients.
  • Look for labels from Green Guard or Green Seal or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).  When a product is marked with a reputable certification, it means that the product has gone through vigorous tests, analysis, and tracking to guarantee that it is a healthier choice for the environment and human health.
  • Many paint manufacturers offer paint with low or no VOCs.
  • When experimenting with new materials, purchase small samples first to make sure the medium works for your application.
  • Incorporate found materials so that old or disposed materials can be given a new purpose.
  • Consider growing herbs that can be used for dying textiles, such as indigo, goldenrod, St. John’s wort, and beets.  Mordants like alum, iron, and vinegar are used when creating herbal dyes.

Solarplate print by Melanie Rice. Solarplate printing is a greener printmaking method. Antique lantern with CFL light bulb.

Process:  Progress & Regress

Sometimes revisiting our past can lead to innovative ideas to be used in the present.  Technology has also helped in making art processes safer.   With photography for example, artists have been able to eliminate exposure to chemicals used in the dark room for development.  Research techniques used in the past and staying informed on cutting edge techniques can enlighten artists on how to make their art greener.  Student artist and one of the recipients of Fairfield University’s  Larrabee Award, Melanie Rice’s solo exhibition An Inquiry into the Interaction Between Past and Present takes a closer look into how modern life shapes and is affected by living in historic New England towns.  The show contained a collection of photographs and prints showing architectural details of Newport, RI, Norwich, CT, and Mystic, CT.  In addition to documenting these nuances, Rice incorporated a printmaking process called Solarprinting which uses solar plates covered in a special light sensitive coating rather than traditional copper or zinc plates which requires nitric acid in the etching process.  The sun or a UV box is used when etching solar plates.  Processing time using solar plates is actually much faster too – taking minutes compared to what could be hours in acid.  In addition, Rice selected Akua inks which are water based rather than oil.  By choosing Akua inks, the clean-up process is also greener and easier since water can be used rather than solvents like gamsol or alcohol.  Rice notes that Akua inks are also comparable in price to oil inks.  Solar plates are also less expensive than copper but cost more than zinc plates, but in the end, she asks herself, “what is more important saving money or being green and healthy?”

Digital photograph version of Melanie Rice's antique lantern with CFL light bulb.

When looking into art processes, consider the following:

  • toxicity of chemicals used
  • safety gear needed: goggles, gloves, masks, aprons, protective covers
  • processing time
  • cost of materials
  • clean-up materials and time

Second Nature

Artists create art out of a need for expression and often are willing to use materials or a process to achieve the desired outcome even though it may diminish their health.   CT artist, Kathy Hirshon admits that she also, even though concerned for health and the environment, has worked in ignorance in regards to toxic ingredients.  Experimenting with a wood-burning tool on wood panel surfaces is benign enough, but Hirshon advises that still precautionary steps should be taken in knowing the materials you are burning and the undertaking the process in a setting that is safe.  Many of the harmful ingredients may be inert in a certain state, but when it is chemically changed, fumes can be poisonous.  Hirshon believes that artists play a pivotal role in educating the public on environmental sensitivities that are beyond social but also how they relate to human health.  Symptoms like constant headaches, nausea, muscle aches, sinus infections, skin rashes, and stuffy noses can result from prolonged use of toxic materials or improper application.  Use of the materials should be discontinued and the artist should seek medical treatment.

Michelina Docimo is a certified sustainable building advisor and writer. Her focus is on sustainable or “green” architecture, landscape, design, and the representation of nature in art. Her writings have appeared in CT Green Scene, ARTES Magazine, Culture Catch, D’Art International, and other industry publications.  Visit her blog http://michelinadocimo.com/myartobiography

This article was published in CT Green Scene: http://ctgreenscene.com/

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8 Comments to “Tips on Greening Art”

  1. What loving concern you clearly feel for people making art. You desire artists, as they are creating and contributing their works, to be safe. While you appreciate art objects,
    you genuinely value the human beings who make them. We
    artists are typically notorious for holding our work above our personal comforts, often even proud of that deliberate, sacrificial stance. You ask us to nurture ourselves, as well as our art works. THANK YOU FOR YOUR MOTIVATION, along
    with your research.

  2. Greg Patch says:

    Nice article Michelina!, with many wonderful suggestions.

  3. mdocimo says:

    Kathy – Thank you for your note. Habits are hard to break but hopefully artists will be more motivated by creativity, innovation, and health to change behavior, rather than solely financial incentives.

  4. mdocimo says:

    Hi Greg, Thanks for visiting my site and leaving a message. I took a look at your site and you’re a fountain of knowledge on green art.

    For other visitors, please visit http://www.greenartstudio.com to view Greg’s online gallery.

  5. Faith says:

    Absolutely love the fresh layout. I really liked this content. Thank you for a fine article.

  6. A sculptor is a person who is interested in the shape of things, a poet in words, a musician by sounds.

  7. Kudos for posting such a useful blog. Your blog isn’t only informative and also very artistic too. There usually are extremely couple of people who can write not so easy articles that creatively. Keep up the good work !!

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