My Promise: Sustainability in Art
If the dire predictions of our most respected scientists are to be believed, we have just five years to avoid the worst effects of Climate Change. By all accounts, we are on the cusp of a self-inflicted apocalypse which threatens the survival of our species (at worst) and will force massive, rapid social change (at best).
Rising oceans acidified, polluted and inhospitable to life; mass extinctions, primarily amongst land mammals; migrating human populations numbering in the hundreds of millions; resource scarcity and unforeseen strain on our established institutions; rainforests so dry they are reduced to kindling; wildfires so large they have no comparison in human history; grain harvests reduced by 50% and massive new industrial farming operations in...Greenland.
These are just a few of the many consequences of poor stewardship of our (only) home. (I highly recommend listening to The Uninhabitable Earth here for a complete portrait of our future.)
As a result, I think about our planet frequently. Every day. It weighs heavily on my mind and my heart. It isn't just where I find most of my artistic inspiration, it's my home and my favorite place to escape to. For tomorrow's children the forests, alpine habitats and high peaks that I love so much will not exist in their present condition.
Truthfully, over these last fifteen years of escaping to the wilderness, I have already noticed the effects hotter summers and regional wildfires have had on our delicate alpine ecosystems. These ecosystems require hundreds of years of stable temperatures and predictable weather patterns to mature. Declining wildlife populations and dusty, brown remainders of the tundra are widespread. Pine beetles are now killing half the forests here in Colorado.
I feel intensely responsible for contributing to this problem, but I also feel equally powerless when faced with the enormous outcome.
For this reason, these past few months I have spent many hours meditating on how I, as an artist, entrepreneur and global citizen, can do my very best to: do less harm, make more art, and honor my commitment to create artwork which is both timeless and meaningful.
These are my thoughts, this is my vision. They're not aspirational, they're actionable. I hope by sharing, these thoughts may inspire you and influence conscientious art making and decision-making in your own life. Furthermore, this isn't the period at the end of a complete thought. It's the first sentence of what I know will become a wider dialectic.
I believe with all my heart that we as artists, artisans, art-lovers and art-enthusiasts can and should use our influence today to influence tomorrow. We can crowdsource solutions and take action, no matter how small, to create objects of lasting beauty. We can also use innovative materials and new ways of thinking which not only contribute to art we're making, but which may even evolve and enhance how and why we make what we make.
The arts have a notoriously large ecological footprint. As an example (depending on which source you quote your research from), the fashion industry is the second or third largest source of emissions and pollution globally.
If you're reading this in America, we have the privilege of living in a free-market system. This means one very important thing: voting with our dollars and putting our money where our mouths are is the easiest way to influence the conversation around any cause we are passionate about.
From today forward, building sustainability into my business model is how I choose to vote with my dollars. Other artist-entrepreneurs should take this into consideration too. These actions will: lower your long term overhead, add novelty to your work, and add value to your already priceless masterpieces.
In the past, I've been somewhat rigid when it comes to substrate. Unprimed Belgian linen on white pine spacers has been my business default, but I refuse to be limited by tradition. This isn't to say I plan on going through my studio tomorrow and trashing everything I have accumulated to this point. On the contrary, I plan on using everything I already have to its highest and best potential, while transitioning to a creative, sustainable business model.
Here are some examples I've considered. This list is not exhaustive. Rather, it's a good place to start.
- Bamboo and hemp canvas substrates
- Recycled denim substrates
- Found objects and non-traditional media
- Sustainably harvested white pine spacers for future projects
- Unbleached fabrics and papers
- Non-toxic paints, pigments, dyes and mediums wherever possible
- Old hand towels, garments, and bed linens re-purposed as studio towels
- Low VOC media (this means the vapors won't kill me. See below.)
- LCD studio lighting (if your utilities provider has a renewable energy program, you may consider opting into it for just a couple dollars more per month).
- A more rigorous program of waste sorting
If you live in a large metropolitan area, you probably have an artists collective nearby which both uses and sells upcycled or unwanted art supplies. If you live in Denver, check out this cool group of people selling secondhand art supplies and consider donating your unneeded art materials.
From the perspective of business administration, converting my operation to a completely paperless enterprise isn't just possible, it's far more convenient. Having invoices, legal documents, and site/reference photographs on the go just makes good business sense.
Finally, it isn't in the nature of artists to waste.
If everyone in your life hasn't already reminded you, real artists starve. While I personally disagree with this vehemently (this deserves a blog of its own), I placed an order with GrubHub just a few weeks ago (see, I literally refuse to starve). Imagine my surprise when every portion of my meal arrived in separate plastic containers with plastic lids. I get it. Some people really, really don't want their food to mingle on their plates but this...this seemed like overkill. I don't live in a community which recycles, so I usually have to haul my recycling to ones that do. Then I thought, all of these containers look like the ones I buy at the store with multiple wells for different colors. Reusing all of my grocery containers has become a studio best practice since that delivery. I've also gotten to reuse basically every paper bag, cardboard box, and piece of flat plastic as paint palettes for every project since then.
What does the future of art look like? This is probably the subject of a fully fleshed out blog in the future, but perhaps one future vision of my work is no longer physical in nature at all.
Digital or experiential art powered by renewable electricity is a fascinating thought experiment. Sustainability as the subject of an entire collection is a provocative idea in itself. The only way to know for sure is to try. The worst that happens is we, as an arts community, have to return to our (sustainably sourced) drawing board and try again.
Art-making also has a serious human cost as well. It's famously toxic and disproportionately affects the lives of low-income women around the globe. Some notable examples include industrial incidents like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911 which killed 171 women and girls. In 2013, 1,134 workers (mostly women and girls) were killed in a Bangladeshi fast-fashion warehouse fire. A further 2,500 non-fatal injuries were reported.
The minerals and oils found in common fine art paints pollute millions of gallons of water if improperly disposed of, but several notable artists who died of exposure to their own art supplies include Eva Hesse (resin vapors), Giuseppe Francisci (chemical gasses related to glass-blowing) and Robert Arneson (cancer related to ceramics).
Vincent Van Gogh may have driven himself insane licking his brushes contaminated with lead pigments. Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Goya may all have suffered from lead poisoning as well. Cadmium, cobalt, chromium, zinc oxide, and arsenic are all common minerals found in art-making supplies which are highly toxic to the environment and human health.
For more information about art supplies which may be killing you, read more here.
The most important single thing we can do to protect our freshwater resources is to allow our paints (acrylic paints, that is) to fully dry before we toss the leftovers. While most artist-quality acrylics in stores these days are marketed as non-toxic, it is a foregone conclusion that chemicals in our wastewater will pollute our freshwater resources.
If you are an oil painter, find yourself a large metal container with a tight lid and fill it partially with sand or cat litter. From there, you can dump your old pigments into it then bring it to your local municipal paint disposal facility. Anything less will end up back in the water supply, eventually traveling up the food chain and onto your dinner plate.
In summary, it's a well-documented fact art-making is harmful to the environment and human health. However, we don't have to paint ourselves into a corner. Small changes and big doses of creativity can, and will, help us literally and figuratively create a more beautiful, vibrant world. Together we can imagine a future less dire than the visions we currently have (unless, of course, you paint visualizations of the apocalypse, in which case you can always dream of the problem without contributing to it).
The bottom line is: we can and must do better. I'm committed to building a sustainable, vital art-making empire. I hope you will too.