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Artmakers as Friends of the EarthHealthy Green Artists
by Janet Chui
Ah, the lot of the artist's life. High cost of supplies, low pay, terrible hours, social ostracization, misunderstanding relatives ... dangerous solvents, persistent poisons, and brain-melting fumes.
We suffer a lot for our art, but we persist because something makes it worth it. For it, artists will brave cements, glues, ammonia, clay dust, chlorine, high heat, flammable liquids, varnishes, lead, compressed air, flying paint particles, microfibers, and corrosive acids. Some of these materials we may use without paying enough heed to their toll on ourselves. The majority of us are probably not glass-blowers or metalworkers, but worry not, this column will find information to scare even the artist who only works with non-toxic kiddie paint. Otherwise I just wouldn't be doing my job.
The other part of my job will be trying to cover what an artist can do for the environment. Pollution and destruction is ugly—as artists create and represent beauty, we can all try to ensure this doesn't just happen inside our studios but persists outside the studio, too. And there's a lot we can do. The more one learns, the more it is apparent that our health is closely linked to the health of our environment, our source of nurture and inspiration.
So for this first column, let us tackle what every artist generates no matter what medium you work in. It's the stuff we can't wait to get out of our sight. But along with our pretty work, we produce it, and probably don't think that much about it, nor about where it goes, or how it adds up, or what it does after it's out of our sight and our minds.
See, I've chosen to talk trash in my first column.
Trash stinks. It takes up space. Sometimes it forces you to leave your desk and have to walk to the dumpster to be rid of it. The average American is said to produce over 4 pounds of solid trash a day. If you're not American, statistics say you produce much less.
Away from your studio, trash takes up more space. It gets thrown in landfills (where most of it actually does not disintegrate). It gets shipped overseas to third world countries, becoming part of the landscape for the poor. It gets burned and becomes part of a bigger, more harmful stink. Some trash can't even be destroyed or recycled at all—non-biodegradables and will persist ... in the long term seeping into the ground or into air and the water supply and into living things, causing cancers and other debilitating health effects to the unfortunates living in the neighborhood. (And do you know what's in your neighborhood?)
Toxins aside, the largest percentage of solid waste generated in the U.S. (one third) is paper, including paper from catalogs, other disposable reading materials, and packaging. As artists, we're probably really familiar with this stuff.
Ordering studio supplies over the Internet or phone is a regular thing for many of us. But with any new purchase (including an in-store purchase) comes packaging, and that can entail paper products (cardboard or paperboard usually), petrochemical inks (used on the packaging), plastic, and Styrofoam. To minimize this trash we don't want that, alas, always comes with what we do want, one recommendation is keep your delivery orders large but infrequent, and to buy your items in bulk. This works for non-artist items too!
It also works to buy stuff only on your need-list and avoid small impulse items. Cut down your purchase of disposable palettes and pens - in fact, you can use other trash items as one-time use palettes, like veggie trays and glossy cardstock. When shopping at the store, bring your own carrier so you don't have to take home another plastic bag. Recycling, when we tackle it in another column, is not applicable to a lot of plastics.
Another big consideration is to try avoiding hazardous art materials we really may not need. As artists we get familiar with warning labels. We follow their instructions for safe use and good ventilation. With some aerosols and varnishes, however, even after use, we have to be careful with how these items are disposed (subject of a future column!). It may be worth avoiding these products altogether. "2D" artwork can easily be protected with care and by mechanical means alone, foregoing bad-smelling fixatives. Your family and customers will be thankful!
One more item some of us could consider not buying is packaging for our own work. After all, artists are sellers too. Need bubble wrap? One can salvage and save the bubble wrap and styrofoam peanuts from Christmas gifts and our own Internet orders. Need envelopes? You can construct your own from scrap paper or reuse those you've received.
If you're unsure about how your customers will react to secondhand packaging, don't rule out explaining your actions to them. Besides, it's not the outer package but the inside that counts, uh, right? Your art item can still be presented beautifully inside the package - in reused wrapping tissue and ribbons, some of my favorite materials! Stock up at the holidays, even if you'll look a little crazy at the family gathering grabbing everyone's used wrappers.
You can probably think of more ways for artists to reduce what we need to buy. The sky’s the limit—you can find recipes online to make clay out of common flour, calligraphy ink out of nutshells and berries, or handmade paper out of your monthly bills! We may not always be thinking about where we get our materials from—but wouldn't it be cool if part of them came from our own hands? Creativity is, after all, our domain. And we can apply it toward making a better impact on our planet.
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