Woodstock School of Art wants to keep art non-toxic

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Prominent on the Woodstock School of Art website’s home page is a policy matter.

“Please note that in an effort to maintain our non-toxic environment, the Woodstock School of Art does not permit the use of turpentine or mineral spirits in the painting studios,” it reads. “Additionally, please refrain from wearing perfume, cologne or scents of any kind.”

According to Eric Angeloch, WSA Artistic Director, the Solvents Policy has been evolving. “It started several years ago,” said the son of one of the painters and printmakers who founded the town’s first year-round art school 50 years ago this month. “We had some instructors and students who had medical conditions exacerbated by the use of solvents to clean brushes, as well as some mediums…People are curious. Once they’re educated they’re totally on board with the new policy.”

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School of Art Executive Director Nina Doyle added that she’d been noticing how “a lot of colleges will not allow oil painting anymore.” Shifts in the use of media have accompanied a greater awareness of the many ways in which one’s health can be compromised by the chemicals and other elements one comes into contact with in work and at home. “This is a school and we educate about the process of art.”

As part of the school’s policy, which is increasingly being repeated at other arts institutions, turpentine and/or mineral spirits (petroleum distillates, etc.) are not allowed. Instead, recommended oil paint thinners include Lavender Spike Oil, Rosemary Oil, Linseed Oil and Walnut Oil. Oil paint solvents recommended for use include Citrus Essence Brush Cleaner and Lavender Brush Cleaner.

Angeloch said he’s been researching these matters regularly over the years. Doyle noted how they’d found that some products that had claimed to be non-toxic actually used mineral spirits. The school’s also moved away from any products that fail to list all their ingredients.

Angeloch and I spoke about a mutual friend, the late artist and activist regarding toxic art materials, Diana Bryan. Based for years in nearby West Saugerties’ Blue Mountain area, she worked in various media, eventually creating one of a kind paper cutouts that she animated into several films. Bryan also ended up becoming a board member for ACTS (Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety), a not-for-profit corporation that provides health, safety, industrial hygiene, technical services, and safety publications to the arts, crafts, museums, and theater communities for which she sponsored numerous artist workshops around the Hudson Valley.

“I just started getting interested in the subject and have been researching it for three years,” Angeloch said. “The natural solvents and mediums were in wide use until the late 1800s, when turpentine first came into wide use. I look at this as a means of returning to pre-industrial age ways.”

He and Doyle noted the numbers of students who had expressed concern about being effected by toxins over the years, as well as the way a new policy was in keeping with the elegant studio upgrades the School of Art has been undergoing in recent years, including great new fans to better the exhaust systems in the graphics studio for when people are working with etching chemicals, for which there are no alternatives.

Angeloch recalled being a kid back when his father, Robert Angeloch, founded the school with two friends, at first working out of a boarding house structure on Mill Stream Road. That was 50 years ago this month, he added. His most vivid memory is still of the strong smell of turpentine.

He and Doyle said changes in the arts are inevitable. And also good for the creative process.

“You know who used what we’re using now?” Angeloch asked. “We’re back to Leonardo.”

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