A posted sign sporting cute otters in the art lab reminds design major Iris Lerch '12 not to wash oil-based paints and other toxins down the drain.
Sasha Petrenko, University of San Francisco’s art studio
manager, knows firsthand the impact of hazardous art compounds on the
environment and on human health. She lost an art instructor to cancer and knows
others who were debilitated by the disease, most likely from their heavy
exposure to volatile organic compounds found in oil paints and paint thinner.
The closeness of those encounters was jarring. It spurred
her to take safety more seriously and led her down a track to teaching art,
design, and architecture students how to avoid the same pitfalls of earlier
generations. In 2010, Petrenko began teaching a 2-hour workshop for USF’s Art +
Architecture Department on how to operate tools and properly handle and dispose
of potentially toxic art materials.
This fall, Petrenko, with support from Tanu Sankalia, chair
of Art + Architecture, will transform the workshop into a required five-week
course — Fabrication Lab. The curriculum will train Art + Architecture students
to safely use tools and educate them on the environmental impacts and health
risks associated with using toxic paint and chemical-laced solvents. Part of
the course will highlight the benefits of sustainable art and design using
recycled and non-toxic materials.
Expanding the workshop into a five-week seminar will raise
the bar in terms of environmental and health consciousness at USF, Petrenko
“When I teach sustainability for artists, discussing it in
terms of health, finances, and the environment,” Petrenko said, “I emphasize
how students’ personal health is the most important tool they have and that by
using safer materials and disposing of them properly they can protect
themselves, their community, and the environment.”
At first blush, artists and art lovers may not associate art
with environmental pollution or toxic substances. Yet, artists have
traditionally used dangerous and toxic substances for pigments in paints or
when creating sculptures. “Our field, for too long, has suffered from a Jackson
Pollock syndrome; a crazy genius, devil-may-care attitude,” that is not
realistic said Petrenko, who faced that grim fact early in her career when one
of her art instructors at the University of California, Berkeley died of cancer
— likely from exposure to toxic materials used to create art.
Shifting that attitude in her students is now a focus of
what Petrenko does. “We absolutely have to be conscientious about what we put
in the world, and we want the next generation to do the same, only better,”
Petrenko said. Following her former instructor’s death, she put aside her work
as an oil painter — working with lead paint, paint thinner, and cadmium, all of
which contain carcinogens — and transitioned to non-toxic paints, and using recycled
materials to craft works of architectural design, sculpture, and choreography.
“I learned how busy the studios can get and how easily
mistakes or accidents can happen,” said Teresa
Mejia ’12, a Latin American studies major, who found Petrenko’s workshop
enlightening and changed her habits as a result. “Look around USF’s art studios;
there are plenty of signs and trash cans that tell students how to properly
dispose of their materials.”
Indeed, above each sink are signs reminding students not to
pour paints or solvents down the drain; to the side are pictures of cuddly
animals, each a victim of an oil spill.
As practicing artists and designers, USF faculty and staff
emphasize alternatives to toxic materials, such as using water-based paints and
inks for artwork, cleaning studio space with all-natural canola or soy oil, and
keeping the printmaking workshop solvent-free. “Across the department, everyone
-- faculty, staff, and students -- wants to use cleaner, safer materials,
especially as they become more educated,” Petrenko said.