Why Sustainable Art?

By Erika Montes and Ed Carpenter, Office of Marketing Communications Posted Tue, 03/13/2012 - 17:00

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 said.

“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. 

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