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When I started Phase 2 of my Manhattan Bridge series, I switched my drawing medium to charcoal. It has been 20 years since I played with charcoal, so there is a lot that I’ve forgotten about how the medium acts. For one thing, it is messy. It creates a lot of powder dust.

Traditionally, I have worked large format: 3′ x 5′ on paper. To work this large, the paper has to be mounted upright, and the charcoal dust just falls away, for the most part. I didn’t worry about the mess that it made, because it was an art studio, an inherently messy place. But it’s a whole different story when it’s in my home, on my kitchen counter, where I prepare food.

And here’s the kicker: On the back of the charcoal sticks is a sticker that states: WARNING: These Heritage pastels contain a chemical known to the state of CA to cause cancer. This despite the product label stating: “Non-toxic.” What chemical in this product is a carcinogen? In what form does this product put the user at risk for cancer? Is the airborne dust damaging to the lungs the way coal dust is to coal miners? If it is ingested, will it damage the digestive system, even though activated charcoal is sometimes used to treat poisoning?

Another issue, working with charcoal, pastels, and other fragile media, is the need to “fix” the medium to the work surface so that it won’t slough off or smear. Fixative is stinky stuff that comes in an aerosol spray can and needs to used in a well ventilated area. According to the warning label it contains: acetone, toluene, propane, and butane – as you can imagine it’s very flammable, so don’t smoke around it. Do yourself a favor, don’t smoke at all, and if you do, quit. According to the can, vapor may affect the brain or nervous system causing dizziness, headache, or nausea. It causes eye, skin, nose and throat irritation.

I spray my work outside. Ideally, it suggests spraying work in a 70 to 80 degree environment that is low in humidity. I spray my work under the awning of the front door awning to my building, no matter the weather. So far, this has only proved problematic on windy days. I’m not willing to compromise my health unnecessarily in the name of ART.

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