News | June 29, 2015

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Artists use new methods, materials to reduce toxic risks

Artists have been grappling with safety issues since not long after the first cave-decorating Caravaggios tried to clean their paintbrushes with distilled pine-tree resin.

Inhaling high concentrations of solvents like turpentine, long used to clean oil-based paint and printing plates, can cause dizziness, nausea, fatigue, loss of coordination or coma. Acids used in traditional etching, such as nitric and hydrochloric acids, can corrode skin and irritate eyes, respiratory system and gastrointestinal system. The health hazards of traditional printmaking, as detailed in Princeton University’s “Art Safety Training Guide,” are enough to send a sensible artiste to a less-toxic medium.

Watercolors, anyone?

Fortunately, new materials and methods that don’t risk the health of artists or the environment have been developed since the late 20th century. The importance of artists’ safety, as well as nontoxic and eco-friendly practices, is as foundational as a coat of primer throughout FGCU’s art programs.

Painting students brush on water-based acrylics rather than oil-based pigments that require solvents like turpentine. A specially ventilated room was designed in which potters can wear ventilation masks while applying glazes that contain metals. In the department’s nascent printmaking program, students use soy-based, water-soluble inks An extreme message, but that clean up with soap and water one that artists have been and explore woodcut printing and drypoint techniques instead of acid etching.

“We as a program are much more sensitive to the use of materials, environmental concerns and students’ health concerns,” says Associate Professor and Art Program Leader Andrew Owen, who teaches printmaking and drawing. “Traditionally in printmaking, there’s been a heavy reliance on materials that are not good for the artist through years of exposure. We’re not alone in seeking a nontoxic approach. This is a national and international movement.”

Faculty and students go beyond considering their personal safety when it comes to creating art; they weigh how their process may impact the environment and how they might repurpose materials. Ceramic glaze residue, for example, has been dried, mixed with clay and heated in a kiln to create stepping stones for FGCU’s Food Forest. Once fired, the metals in glazes don’t leech out into soil.

Indeed, the “reduce, reuse, recycle” ethos permeates the curriculum in philosophy and practice. Courses such as “History of Art and Ecology” and “Environmental Art” explore “green” themes and art movements focusing on the natural world; students even design and fabricate clothing from recycled materials for a runway fashion show that occurs on Earth Day. Call it wearing your art on your sleeve.