“All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.”
Printmaking is a varied and complicated artistic practice. Traditionally it makes use of all kinds of harmful chemicals and processes that impact both the health of the artist and the environment in which the artist works. At Zea Mays Printmaking we are dedicated to finding the safest alternatives to traditional printmaking practices, and to educating ourselves about the true impact of the work we choose to do. With the support of Artists In Context, a group of artist members from Zea Mays Printmaking began an investigation into the health impacts of the printing plates we use. Substratum is a documentation of our investigation and hopefully a useful resource for other artist/printmakers and DIY practitioners.
When we began our investigation we discovered that so much of what we use in the print studio is done with a certain blind faith in the product manufacturer’s safety assessments, or in accepted notions about a material and its safety. We wanted to go beneath these assumptions and understand the materials we use with greater certainty.
Because the list of materials and chemicals used by printmakers is exhaustive, we focused on the substrates that we begin with: linoleum, metal, photopolymer, plastic, wood.
We want to know if we are causing ourselves harm by working with these materials. Are we breathing fumes or dusts that are harmful? Are hazardous chemicals entering our bodies through our skin as we touch and rub the surfaces of our plates? Are we being exposed to harmful chemicals when we develop polymer plates and etch metals?
How can we find out answers to these questions?
Through our research and dialogue with scientists we found that “hazardous” was dependent of the type of substrate being used and the ways we transformed the substrate (i.e. sanding, heating, light exposure, etc). Our questions then became “what would constitute a safe method of working with these substrates?”
To aid in our understanding of the science we encountered we enlisted the help of Dr. David Hinkamp, MD, MPH , board certified in Occupational Medicine and Preventive Medicine and faculty at the School of Public Health, University of Illinois, Chicago and Dr. Richard Peltier, Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst and the Massachusetts Department of Technical Assistance. They donated their time to look carefully at our facilities and evaluate our practices, helped us to understand the information we were gathering and opened up a world of resources that we share here.
We are indebted to the pioneering work of Monona Rossol and Michael McCann, whom we have referenced throughout this website. Monona is a chemist, artist and industrial hygienist and founder of Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety (www.artscraftstheatersafety.org/bio.html). She has been on the forefront of providing safety information for the arts since 1987. Michael McCann Ph.D., C.I.H. one of the world’s leading authorities on health hazards in the arts, directed the Center for Safety in the Arts and authored ARTIST BEWARE, an exhaustive reference book on the subject of health hazards for artists. We want to acknowledge the work of Friedhard Kiekeben who has been a pioneer in printmaking safety and who put together the wonderful website nontoxicprint.com.
Substratum is the result of our investigative journey. We’ve approached the subject through various lenses: the plates we work on, the questions we ask about materials, the sources we went to for information, the health impacts of certain exposures and the stories we heard from fellow printmakers. We hope this website serves as an empowering resource and model for further investigations both in and out of the printmaking studio.