Saturday, February 13, 2010

Van Gogh and Vinyl

The risky business of making art

As published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, February 6, 2010

Royal Talens, a Dutch manufacturer of artist materials, makes a line of student-grade paints, pencils and pastels under the brand name of the famous Dutch Impressionist, Van Gogh. “All Van Gogh products,” one vendor advertises, “are non-toxic—perfect for use in the classroom.”

Art supplies in use today that may still contain lead pigments include inks, dyes, paints and pastels, wax crayons, and colored glazes for pottery or glassware. Leaded solders are also still used in stained glass and enamel manufacture, glass-blowing, and jewelery-making.

Of course, lead isn’t the only hazardous material found in artists’ studios. The toxicity of chemical solvents, silica dust, and heavy metals contained in art supplies or in fumes produced in art processes, is well-documented, and art suppliers are required by law to label their products with warnings of acute or chronic health hazards (but not necessarily a list of ingredients). Wise artists take seriously the recommended precautions such as gloves, mask, goggles, and a well-ventilate workspace, when they choose to use potentially hazardous materials. But what happens when there is no warning label or material data safety sheet?

Today’s artists are not afraid to use all manner of unconventional materials in their work. For example, encaustic and fiber artist Daniella Woolf—whose large-scale pieces are currently on display in the Rydell Fellows exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History—has incorporated the humblest of items—tea bags, eucalyptus leaves, carpenters’ shims, drywall tape, and all sorts of found papers—into her work, often in massive quantities. Does she worry about exposure to toxic materials—especially undocumented ones?

“Yes, it’s a huge concern of mine,” she says. “In the 60s and 70s, before very much was known, I worked with resins. I dyed 100 pounds of jute sisal without a mask or gloves. I used to blow my nose and purple would come out. I feel lucky to be alive,” she says.

“There are some things that don’t leave your body. I have high cholesterol and no one else in my family does. So I went to an acupuncturist who said, ‘You’re an artist. You’ve been around toxic chemicals your whole life. Your liver is probably screaming.’”

Today, she’s very careful to use gloves, work in a well-ventilated room, keep her heated materials at safe temperatures, and avoid anything her nose, body, or someone knowledgeable tells her is unsafe. She admits that it’s a risky business, but “I know how to keep it safe,” she says.

I started thinking more seriously about the relative safety of certain art materials when I considered making crafts from recycled vinyl. I came across a how-to sheet on sewing a vinyl-pocketed charging station at Jo-Ann Fabrics; and then stumbled upon a series of beautifully painted bowls made from heat-shaped vinyl records at As I ventured father into the possibilities of vinyl, I discovered that there’s a whole section of differing thicknesses of vinyl for sale at the fabric store (what do folks make with all this?) and numerous tutorials online for making bowls, hair bands and clocks from vinyl records. But is crafting with vinyl—an extremely controversial, yet ubiquitous product—a safe thing?

Vinyl, also know as PVC (polyvinyl chloride), is an inexpensive plastic so versatile, the list of products made from it is exhaustive. Over 50% of PVC manufactured is used in construction—in everything from window frames to rain gutters to wall coverings to flooring to plumbing. The rest is in your clothing, your car, your kitchen, your office, your backyard, your children’s toys, your doctor’s office—even in your back pocket (credit cards). It’s impossible to avoid the stuff.

But, if you’ve ever seen the film “Blue Vinyl” you know that the production, use and disposal of PVC are not without inherent risks to human health and the environment. The California Assembly even approved a bill last June (AB 1329) to reduce PVC in plastic packaging. Reusing vinyl—as in keeping all plastics out of the landfill—can be a good thing. But what if, in the process of heating the vinyl (to mold a record), you were exposing yourself to harmful gasses?

One green writer, Umbra Fisk, recognizes the dilemma between the relative positives of reuse vs. the potential for harm on her website “Grist.” After reading lots of anecdotal and scientific evidence on the Web, I’m inclined to agree with Fisk when she says, Can I find out if heating the vinyl enough to reform it into a bowl is harmful to the crafter or the eater? No. But from what we know about vinyl, its ability to offgas, and the poisonous additives that may or may not be in records (lead!), I'm persuaded that vinyl fruit bowls are a fun item we can do without.”

That said, (and please feel free to consider me stupid), I did go ahead and make a vinyl record bowl. I opened all the kitchen windows, turned on the range fan, used the second (mostly dormant) oven, washed every tool I used (hands, mittens, cookie sheet, metal bowl) in hot soapy water afterwards, and won’t use the record bowl to hold anything edible. In retrospect, it may have even been wise to cover the cookie sheet and molding bowls with foil, which could have been discarded afterwards.

Of course, whether the acrylic paint I added to the surface is also hazardous when heated is another question. The point I’m belaboring here is, do your homework, take precautions, work smartly and safely. You’ve got a world of information at your (gloved) fingertips that Van Gogh never had.