The studio is the space in which the artist flourishes. Devoid of distractions and with materials at the ready, the artist utilizes the mind and the body to find that momentary flicker of synchronicity from which creativity emerges. As phenomenal as this process may be, however, it also holds the potential to be immensely detrimental to the creator, in more ways than one. Toxic art materials such as formaldehyde, arsenic, lead, polyester resin, and fiberglass have taken tolls on the bodies of some of art history's most notable contributors. (In 1970, the famed German-American sculptor Eva Hesse died at the young age of 34 from a brain tumor, which was most likely caused from using the synthetic, toxic materials that made her famous.)
Artists are historically wont to put their work before themselves, and despite scientific evidence that indicate that certain art materials put the artist's health at risk, this still rings true today. Sure, it's easy to forget about the body when you're having a transcendental experience. But being mindful and making small changes in your practice can have a massive impact on your well-being, and most of them are so minute, you won't even notice the difference.
These days the word "detox" gets thrown around a lot, and if you're like me, just the utterance of it makes you gag. But trust me, we're not talking about a juice cleanse here. We're talking about cleansing your space so that you can work more efficiently and safely. Being aware of the risks and taking measures to limit exposure to harmful materials; adopting practices which foster a healthy approach to art-making; and practicing simple physical exercises can make a world of difference.
Here we've outlined some of the ways that you can implement healthy practices into your studio life, so if you want to increase your chances of actually being around to see your big break, and especially if you don't have health insurance (and probably never will), these tips are for you.
1. Trade out harmful products for non-toxic alternatives.
Just as you would read the ingredients on a cereal box to make sure that it's not loaded with artificial crap, it's important to read the labels on art materials for the same reason. (Luckily it's usually a lot easier to spot harmful ingredients on an art material than a food product, because its usually foregrounded with the word "CAUTION".) Do your best to choose non-toxic, environmentally sustainable supplies. Make sure to also check the labels of products for safe use and disposal. Swapping out harmful materials from your studio with non-toxic alternatives can protect not just your body, but can also reduce harm to the environment.
Oil paints and turpentine contain harmful chemicals that can be released into the air if left open or are not handled properly. Some pigments contain hazardous materials such as cadmium, cobalt, mercurial sulfides, and lead. For example, cadmium, a rare metal used in some paints to create vibrant red, yellow, and orange hues, (and a long-time favorite of painters because of its resistance to sun fading from exposure to sunlight) has been known to increase the risk for cancer, as well as put one at risk for complications of the liver and kidney. Inhaling the metal can result in flu-like symptoms and difficulty breathing. Adhesives such as wood glue and aerosol materials such as spray paint contain an airborne chemical called trichloroethylene, which has been known to result in nose and brain damage when inhaled too often. Other common harmful substances to look out for are fiberglass and polyester resin, both of which are thought to be the culprits for the tragic passing of Eva Hesse.
But not to worry. Many brands offer non-toxic alternatives to harmful products. The Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) is a non-profit association of art and craft materials that requires products to be properly labeled. Look for the AP seal to find products that are non-toxic. Products labeled with a CL label require caution, and contain hazardous ingredients. That doesn't mean that you can't handle these materials, they just require more precaution. Keeping an inventory of all of the products in your studio, their particular effects and handling recommendations, along with the contact information for your local poison control center is a simple way to prevent irreversible damage to yourself and the environment.
2. Spruce up your space with plants.
Plants are lifesavers for many creatives, particularly for those living and working in a fume-filled, minuscule urban spaces. Not only are they a beautiful addition to your space, but many plants also have air-purifying and toxin-reducing benefits! Palm plants such as the areca palm (a.k.a. the butterfly palm), the lady palm, the bamboo palm, and the dwarf date palm are effective in reducing toxins such as formaldehyde (found in acrylic paint), benzene (often used as a solvent), and carbon monoxide (that in addition to coming from gas heaters and appliances, is created when you use acetylene torches for welding) from the air. Peace lilies are a beautiful plant that can help to rid your space of a wide range of toxins including ammonia (found in some water-based paints), benzene, formaldehyde, xylene (found in permanent markers and enamel paint), and toluene (found in lacquers). For spaces with low light, the rubber plant, and the philodendron plant are great options. Being around plants can also have vast mental health benefits, including anxiety reduction, improved reaction times, and increased concentration. Just don't forget to water them. (And yourself).
3. Always wear protection.
Depending on what material you're working with, it's important to reduce contact with the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. Irritants to the skin can be handled with caution and by wearing gear such as gloves and eye protection. If working with heavy machinery, wearing durable closed-toe shoes, ear-protective headphones, and working with extreme concentration is key. Electric saws are an obvious risk, and investing in a stop-saw might be a good idea if you're interested in keeping your appendages.
Unlike the obvious dangers of working with machinery and other sharp things, airborne toxins are invisible killers. When handling materials containing harmful substances, it is important to always wear a face mask or respirator. There are various grades of respirators, from disposable valved ones which protect from basic toxic air particles and allergens to activated carbon respirators, which protect against a wider range of toxic vapors and chemicals. Do some research on the materials you are using, and choose your protective gear accordingly. Most importantly, don't forget to switch out the filters, which need to be replaced way more frequently than you might imagine.
When handling harmful contaminants such as aerosols, create a barrier between yourself and the substance. If you use a lot of spray paint, build a spray booth with an exhaust system to help reduce exposure and rid the air of pollutants. There are some great DIY tutorials online that are totally doable if you're the crafty type. Don't be that jerk who thinks they're too cool to wear protection (that is, until they are suffering the consequences, if you know what I mean).
4. Ventilate your space.
When it comes to inhaling toxins, it's not just your respiratory system that is at risk; as toxins inhaled through respiratory tract enter the lungs, they are absorbed into the organs and the bloodstream. The effects may not be immediately noticeable, but as contaminants build up, consequences can be drastic and life-threatening.
Installing a fixture such as a fume hood in your studio can reduce the exposure to dust, vapors, and harmful fumes. Once these vapors are released into the outside air, they dissipate naturally, effectively reducing harm to others and to the planet. Two types of ventilation you can install into your space are local exhaust ventilation and cross ventilation. Local exhaust ventilation is used for larger-particle, highly toxic substances. This setup carries harmful materials through ducts connected to air filters by way of a hood, which draws air up and out.
Cross ventilation does just what its name implies; it exerts clean air into a space, which mixes with the used air, and exhausts the combination of the two out. This helps to keep the level of contaminants at a safe minimum. Installing two industrial fans in seperate windows (preferably on opposite sides of the room) creates an effective cross ventilation system. In a space with no windows, you have to get crafty. Attaching a furnace filter to the back of a box fan is a cheap and simple way to reduce dust particulates in the air.
It is also important to keep your space as clean as possible, and to vacuum the area as often as you can. Opt for vacuuming and mopping rather than sweeping to help to reduce the particles in the air.
At the risk of sounding cheesy, bringing clarity to the studio space can bring clarity to the mind. Sort through the piles of canvases on your floor; the empty spray paint cans and dried-up paintbrushes (hopefully it hasn't come to that); the found objects you picked out of the garbage five years ago and swore you would use one day (no shade intended, this is 100% a self-criticism); and figure out what is essential. Combine what you can. Donate things you don't need, and follow the disposal protocol for toxic materials. Install some sort of coffee-can contraption like the ones you see on all of those Pinterest #organizationhacks pages to keep your tools organized, so that you can actually find them next time an idea strikes. Keep all of your large yogurt and plastic take-out containers, they will come in handy! Utilize your wall space to store finished paintings, sculptures, etc. so that you can have a clear floor for creating new works. You'll thank yourself for your efforts.
6. Stretch more than just your canvas.
So maybe you became an artist because you were tragically bad at almost every physical activity when you were young. But just because you're not running around a field all day doesn't mean that you don't need to routinely check in with your body, and take measures to protect it from injury. Art-making can cause significant wear-and-tear on your body. Routine stretching can both ease and prevent pain in the body, and the endorphins don't hurt either. Here are three basic postures (a.k.a. Yoga for Studio Life) that can help you breathe better and get rid of those persistent aches, pains, and anxieties.
Cat/Cow Pose (Marjaryasana/Bitilasana):
Come onto your hands and knees with your shoulders directly over your wrists and your hips directly over your knees. Inhale deeply and drop your belly down, looking up, broadening across the chest, and lifting up your sitting bones. On the exhale, round your spine like a cat, gazing toward your belly button. Go as fast or as slow as feels good, repeating 10 rounds. This will help to increase circulation to the back muscles, relieves lower back pain, and acts as a gentle stretch. (Not to mention it can also help you get rid of a nasty post-open-bar-art-opening hangover).
Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana):
From hands and knees, exhale while tucking under your toes and lift your hips toward the sky. (You should look something like an upside-down V.) Keep the knees micro-bent, and focus on lengthening the tailbone and lifting the sitting bones upwards. Spread your fingers wide, pressing into the thumb and forefinger. Move your shoulders away from your ears, widening the shoulder blades and drawing them down toward the tailbone. Keep the head in line with the arms. Take five to ten deep breaths here. This posture will help to calm the mind and relieve stress, while energizing the body and reducing back pain.
Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani):
Hopefully you have some wall space available to do this one, because it is the panacea of yoga postures. It works as a passive, supported variation of a shoulder stand (sarvangasana), and reaps all of the same detoxifying benefits. Place a blanket beneath you for added support, and sit facing the wall, about 5 inches away and with your legs out to one side. As you exhale, swing your legs up the wall and lay your head back onto the ground. Place your feet against the wall and lift the pelvis to readjust until you are comfortable. Lift up the base of the skull to move your chin in toward your chest slightly and soften the throat. Let the shoulder blades relax down into the floor, with arms extended outward. Close your eyes or soften the gaze and breathe deeply for 10-15 minutes. To get out of it, turn to the right side and hug the knees in to a fetal position. This pose eases respiratory ailments, headache, anxiety, depression, and backaches, among a slew of other benefits.
There you have it. Take care of yourself please. We need you.