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Painting: Death-Defying Act?

Local artists cope with health risks of art products.

Bernice Shaller didn’t train to be a painter.

The daughter of a painter and a violinist, her parents discouraged her from entering the art world because they knew the struggles she would face trying to earn a living in it. They offered to pay for her to go to college on one condition: no art classes.

Shaller studied speech therapy as an undergraduate and earned a master's degree in art and speech therapy. But she painted anyway, and has continued painting. In the early 1990s, she became a full-time artist.

“I did try working other jobs, but I’d always paint, and that always kind of took over,” Shaller said, at work in her North Bethesda apartment.

“It was just in me. … I think it’s something that you have inside of you that if you don’t do, you’re in trouble,” said Shaller, who will join the ranks of artists like the late 19th century impressionist Mary Cassatt when she is inducted into the National Association of Women Artists in November. “I really have no choice but to paint if I want to be happy.”

So when Shaller developed a serious allergy to the oil paints and solvents she had worked with for 25 years, she was at a loss.

“There was a period of time I realized I was getting sick. I guess I really didn’t want to face it, because I was getting pretty proficient at oil painting,” she said. Maybe the difficulty breathing she was experiencing was the result of something else, something besides her materials.

She went to a doctor and found out that she had developed small airways disease, a type of asthma, and that it was a “direct result, no question” of the oil paints, thinners, and sprays she worked with on a daily basis.

“The doctor I saw … told me it’s basically a hazard of being a painter,” Shaller said. “As soon as he found out I was a painter he basically told me to stop using oil if I wanted to stay alive.”

SHALLER IS NOT alone with her problems. The experimental artist Eva Hesse died at age 34 of a brain tumor that doctors said was likely the result of fiberglass, resins, and foams she used as a sculptor. Academics have speculated that the white halos evident in some of Van Gogh’s later works are a telltale sign of retinal damage — a symptom of lead poisoning.

Local artists have had similar, if less severe, experiences. Karin Colton, a Potomac painter, stopped using turpentine — used to thin oil paints — after she began having breathing problems.

And those who have not become sick themselves often know someone who has.

“I have not had any health problems, but a friend of mine who was and still is an artist has had several problems and she had to stop using oil paints,” said Martha Spak, another Potomac painter. Shaller cited a friend who vomited blood.

In 1981, The National Cancer Institute studied the deaths of 1,598 artists and found that among other chronic illnesses, they have two to three times the average rate of cancer, according to “Art Hardware: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials” by Steven Saitzyk.

As advocacy and government oversight have helped regulate industry and skilled labor, reducing occupational hazards, the art world has lagged behind.

“You name an occupational disease or chemical, I can probably find you an artist with it,” said Michael McCann, author of “Artist Beware,” who is trained as a chemist and has studied art hazards for more than 30 years. “All these are industrial materials. And we see huge numbers of problems with them being used.”

Most of the hazards are tied to skin irritation and inhalation, though less salient risks, like eating after working with poisonous materials, are a problem too. McCann has pinpointed risks associated not only with oil paints and solvents, but ceramic clay and glazes, sculpting materials, photo chemicals, and dozens of other artistic media.

“Lead glazes used to be very common in pottery. I’ve even found them in elementary schools, and even in a few day care centers unfortunately,” McCann said. A science writer, McCann first took up the topic of art hazards in 1974 after he attended a community workshop on silkscreen printing.

“I had a headache in like 10, 15 minutes. Their idea of ventilation was an open window,” McCann said. “That freaked me out.”

THE SOLVENT-BASED type of printing taught at that workshop has since fallen out of favor, a sign, McCann said, that things are changing.

His organization, the Center for Safety in the Arts operated from 1978-1995, when it lost its funding. In 1988, it lobbied Congress to pass the Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act, an amendment to the Federal Hazardous Materials Act requiring warning labels dealing with both acute and chronic exposure hazards on all art materials.

Artists are becoming more aware of the health risks their materials pose, and the precautions that they can take to prevent them.

“Where they work can make a difference,” said McCann, who stressed the importance of proper ventilation when working with almost any art product. Sophisticated ventilation systems cost thousands of dollars, but getting out of often poorly-ventilated basements, working in a large, open space, and using a window exhaust fan are a good start, he said.

“Other times precautions often mean things like goggles and gloves,” McCann said. “They don’t have to be impossible precautions.”

But the root of the problem may lie deeper than the availability of information about risks or the cost of possible solutions. Artists trained in particular media are reluctant to give them up, risks notwithstanding. And in a process as visceral and personal as creating art, some don’t want talk of safety labels and rubber gloves getting in the way at all.

“You get all different attitudes,” said McCann, who recalled one artist saying that the precautions would “get between” him and his work. “Some of them don’t want to hear it.”

Colton, who stopped using turpentine, switched to turpenoid, an odorless alternative that is chemically similar and poses many of the same risks.

“I’m not concerned at all,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to give it up. It is part of the work. It’s just mixing my colors, and I need something to mix my colors.”

“I would say they concern me but since I haven’t had a problem I kind of take it in stride,” said Spak, the Potomac artist. “I can’t think of anything else that I would do differently at this point.”

OTHER ARTISTS have changed their ways. Many painters now work in acrylics, which are water-based and pose fewer threats than oil paints. Many of those still working in oils used newly developed water-soluble oil paints, which they thin with water, or use mineral spirits as thinners for traditional oil paints. Spak’s friend, who became sick from her materials, began working in organic clays.

For Shaller, the doctor’s ultimatum to stop using oil paints after 25 years may have been a blessing in disguise.

She discovered egg tempera, a simple medium of egg yolks, water, and ground pigments originally used by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks and revived around the turn of the 20th century.

Apart from all but eliminating the health risks she had faced working with oils, Shaller said she likes the creative qualities of the egg tempera, which can be thinly layered and creates a luminous sheen. Egg tempera paintings also last for centuries, which appeals to Shaller, whose work will be included in major museum collections after her induction into the National Association of Women Artists.

“I was supposed to move on. … I think I was supposed to move on to develop a new technique in painting, and also to spread the word, so our kids don’t get sick,” she said.

She turns in her chair and places a film canister filled with the egg tempera paint next to an aerosol can of Krylon UV Resistant Artist’s Spray, a fixer used on oil paintings.

“That also would be hazardous to someone like myself,” she said. “Actually that was given to me. I’ve never used it and I probably never would.”