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Book on art safety was partly sponsored by CSST, art supply company

An Ounce of Prevention could save an artist's life

by Barbara Black

The jury is still out on whether Vincent Van Gogh went mad because of lead poisoning from his paints, but every modern-day artist knows someone who has suffered for art -- a sculptor whose welding left him with severe liver damage, or a printmaker whose lungs are incapable of getting her up a flight of stairs, for example.

Artists are working with ever more sophisticated materials and techniques, and for their own safety, they must know how to work safely. Now the Faculty of Fine Arts has published a book called An Ounce of Prevention: Health and Safety in the Visual Arts, which is likely to be widely used even beyond Concordia's own studios.

It's the second edition of a book published in 1984, but a quantum leap forward, with a smart, user-friendly look and the latest information vetted by New York writer Michael McCann, the acknowledged expert in the field.

A look at the index shows its scope. It includes all the safety issues involved in maintaining a studio, such as ventilation and air quality, electricity, lighting, temperature, noise, floors, plumbing and lighting. It also discusses fire safety, equipment to protect the artist's skin and eyes, and first aid, including homeopathic alternatives.

There is a wealth of information about the materials used in all sorts of art-making -- painting and drawing, sculpture, ceramics, fibres, papermaking, photography, printmaking. Finally, the book lays out the relevant policies and regulations here at the University and throughout the province.

Devora Neumark did much of the research for the book, and, with Douglas Scott and Paul Gregory, compiled and wrote it. Back in the 1980s, Neumark was a relatively untrained Fine Arts technician, and had an experience that changed the course of her life.

She opened the door to an acid room, where printmakers plunge their etchings into acid baths. To her horror, the room was filled with yellow smoke, and the printmaker was choking – "a situation I was poorly equipped to deal with," Neumark recalled at the book launch last week. "Without any protection, I foolishly went in and dragged her out, but I felt at fault."

The idea for the first book was born, and also led to a job; Neumark spent several years working with arts-safety activist McCann in New York. She sees the book as a resource that art students can take beyond the classroom to their own first studio.

Paul Gregory, manager of the art supply store in the Visual Arts Building, was in charge of putting the book together. "For centuries, artists died, and no one knew why," he said at the book launch.

Gregory was full of praise for the people who helped over the past two-and-a-half years: the Dean of Fine Arts Office; Sue Magor, Director of Environmental Health and Safety; the D.L. Stevenson and Son Artist Colour Manufacturing Company, of Toronto, whoseco-owner, Charlotte Stevenson, attended the launch; and the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CSST).

The vice-president for client relations for the CSST, Juliette Bailly, praised the book and the initiative behind it, and spoke warmly about how it addresses the CSST's concern for the prevention of accidents in the workplace. The government agency took care of the printing costs, and will underwrite the translation of An Ounce of Prevention into French.

The translation will be done by Jean-Paul Champagne, who was also on hand for the celebration. Coincidentally, his daughter, Micheline Champagne-Tremblay, won a competition for Design Art students to design the book's cover.

Neumark said she has heard from art educators as far away as Alberta and England who want copies of the book. It is available at the Art Supply Store, in the VA Building, for only $7.25.

Copyright 1998 Concordia's Thursday Report.