I’m wanting to do art so badly these days that the thought has arisen: “I don’t even care if it will kill me.” That’s not something that has come up, before. It did come up last night, and I neglected to write it down…but I don’t think the sentiment is an unfamiliar one, to many. (At least, to many in the art world.)
Of course, examples of early death from exposure to artists’ materials abound. I am reminded of Jay DeFeo, who died of lung cancer a couple of decades after working on her piece, sometimes called Rose, or Deathrose, for eight years. (This piece had been repeatedly built up and carved down, which would have created particulates. I suspect but do not know that she may have used Titanium White pigment in this; the photos I’ve seen are black-and-white.)
I have had a number of art teachers who have fought cancer. I knew someone who died in their 20’s from breast cancer, potentially from grinding down car parts (and refusing treatment). My nearest artsy contact has a rattling chronic cough (though I think they have been exposed to a lot of things besides art supplies).
I suppose the thing to do is to know what you’re getting into, before you get into it. One of my previous drawing teachers did make sure to emphasize the dangers of blowing pastel dust up into the air and then inhaling it. Of course, people still did it, which then exposed the entire class…except for those who brought dust masks and respirators. (Tip: turn the drawing board vertically and then tap it on a hard surface to clear the paper of dust, without raising excess dust.)
I was one of the people who did (eventually) wear a respirator…and the difference of the smell from within the respirator, versus the smell outside the respirator, was not at all subtle. I wore it because I was getting personally disturbed at sneezing, then blowing my nose and seeing blue stuff come out of my sinuses.
And this was working with the relatively safe stuff — we were only using NuPastels. Though now, anything with loose Titanium White in it is likely to get a Prop 65 Warning in California (that is, a label saying it carries a recognized carcinogen) even though the danger of Titanium White is mechanical, particularly where it comes to free nanoparticles: not a toxic one.
As long-time readers of this blog know, I have been careful to avoid certain pigments because of their toxicity. By that, I particularly mean cadmium-based pigments. I learned of itai-itai disease while in the Art program, which is a disease caused by cadmium pollution in water sources. The incidence of itai-itai in this example was caused by mine drainage into the water supply people drank, cooked with, watered their crops with, fished in, and bathed in.
This lead to cadmium buildup in their bodies. Itai-itai literally translates to, “it hurts, it hurts.” I read this a long time ago, and the page I read it on has since changed, but one of the main symptoms is bone softening and fractures, even just under the body’s own weight. (There’s also some stuff about kidney [“renal”] failure in there, but I don’t claim to understand that…I just barely took Biology classes.)
It’s not that important to me to get brilliant opaque colors out of cadmium-based pigments (which are, generally speaking, water-soluble; meaning they can be absorbed through the skin). It’s one thing to take the risk of working, and die; it’s another to die slowly and painfully for an avoidable reason that you can foresee and take precautions about.
If you know ways to keep yourself safer, it’s likely in your own best interest to do it. Although I do know about taking on passive risk. I do understand that self-destructive quality that Freud referred to as thanatos. But there’s a reason to protect yourself as much as you can: and that is, to extend your life on this planet. If making art brings you joy, I would expect that you would want to spend as much time making art as you can, yes?
So don’t sell yourself (or the world) short.
My particular weakness on this point are cobalt-based pigments (particularly, in watercolors). Cobalt is another toxic heavy metal, like cadmium, but has a different range of symptomatology on exposure. The thing is that I haven’t found anything with the same colors, or the same working properties.
Probably the worst I ever got from this was contact dermatitis (itching) when I was trying to reduce my exposure to cobalt by wearing nitrile gloves, and in the process got Aureolin paint (PY40, Cobalt Yellow) all over the tube — and my hand, because the gloves smeared the paint everywhere, and I didn’t see it. Or feel it. When I finally took the gloves off to actually take the lid off the tube (instead of just stretch the gloves), I got the paint all over my hand — and had nowhere but my pot of rinse water to wash it off.
I think that was a lesson in not being overly careful, if doing so creates risks and problems that don’t otherwise exist.
At this point, the only major thing I have about the cobalt colors is that 1) I can absorb them transdermally, and 2) I don’t know how to wash out my brushes while never contacting the paint. Everyone says not to touch the brushes. They don’t give any advice on how to avoid doing so.
Though now that I think of it, that would be a good use of those nitrile gloves — provided, of course, that no water gets into them. Which would negate the reasoning for using them, in the first place.
I’m not sure what’s up with me, tonight. I am feeling better than I was last night, and basically, I’m feeling better than I have for the last week. I think I’ve turned a corner where it comes to my health. It is now, though, almost 1 AM where I’m at! (No wonder I’m having trouble thinking!)
I need to get stuff cleaned up. Particularly: books. And changing these sheets, doing laundry, and getting the dust out of here. I also need to re-read Chapter 2 of my textbook so I know what I’m looking for, when I work on my late assignment. I should be able to complete that, tomorrow, if I’m feeling anything like the way I felt tonight.
Once I get that assignment out of the way, maybe I should realistically look at doing something constructive with my watercolors…I see them every day, and they just get dusty because of my hesitation. (I deal with OCD; they tempt me, but I remember that I need to use caution in handling them…which leads to their not getting used.)
Something like recovering from an illness seems like it will make a person embrace life more strongly. Kind of like contemplating immortality, just to get smacked back into reality by a high fever…
I suppose I have the cold to thank for that…