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Why should the art practices and supplies used to bring beauty into the world also cause so much damage to it?
The world of art is toxic!

The Art Detox Challenge is here to educate, inspire and challenge artists and art supply manufactures to make the shift towards becoming more human, earth and animal friendly.

My existential crisis...

Artist Erik Abel

My name is Erik Abel. I've been a full-time artist for almost two decades. I recently had a major freak-out about the the health hazards of the materials I use and the environmental impact of my entire art process.

Over the last several years, my art business has grown through the roof. And with increased business, I began to really notice all the "stuff" that was being used and then just thrown away. This was mostly on the printing and shipping side of the business. Then I started looking at all the art supplies I used in the studio; empty plastic paint bottles thrown in the trash, dried acrylic paint scrapings from old palettes all over the floor, plastic plates for paint mixing, brush bristles made from unknown animal fur or synthetic plastic, dirty paint water full of plastic polymer particles, plastic tools, cups, bins, plastic this, plastic that, and all acrylic paint is basically just colorful liquid plastic! Ahhh! I started to have this shame and disgust about what was going on in the most sacred, inspiring, and passionate area of my life.

Over the centuries, certain art supplies have been notorious for toxicity. Oil painting can be fairly natural and environmentally friendly, until you add turpentine and paint thinners to the scene. Those release toxic vapors and can cause major health problems for artists. And many pigments contain heavy metals that can build up in the body and become poisonous. I don't ever recall being warned about this in my college painting classes. I can vividly remember being in a giant studio classroom with 25 other artists with their thinners out. You could smell the art department a mile away! And not a rubber glove in sight.

Despite the “Non-toxic” labels on art supplies, many still contain chemicals that are dangerous. And many are petroleum based or come in single use plastic containers. We have all seen the environmental impact of the overwhelming amount of plastic polymers being created in the world. When you buy acrylic paint... you are just buying a blob of liquid plastic inside a plastic tube, only to brush (with synthetic plastic bristles?) that onto a plastic (acrylic gesso) coated canvas. And most likely, the canvas fabric and wood stretcher bars were grown and manufactured half way around the globe. That's quite the ecological footprint in the name of art.

"Why should the art practices and supplies we use to bring beauty into the world also do so much damage to it?"

That was a profound and pivotal thought that would take me way, way down the rabbit hole of researching the art industry. And it's uglier than I ever realized. And speaking of rabbits, I'll save the stories about where the animal fur for your brushes come from for a later time. And we don't even want to begin talking about spray paint and the mural industry. That hole is deeper and darker than you want it to be.

This all caused me to question whether or not I wanted to continue making art at all... at least in the same way. Here I was, an artist who uses my artwork to help raise awareness and funding for many environmental orgs, consistently expressing my love for the ocean and the natural environment, but the manufacturing process of the art supplies I used every day were literally poisoning and polluting the very causes I had aligned myself with. Giant hand slap on the forehead!

Then I got scared and discouraged. I was scared because I knew I would have to change everything or be a hypocrite. All my comfortable, well known supplies, tools and techniques would have to be reconfigured and relearned. My now signature style would probably have to change and look a bit different. My canvas and paper print side of the business was going to have to shift. The last 20 years of making art and finally reaching a style that worked, with materials that worked, and a business model that was kicking ass, was going to have to be seriously reimagined in a more sustainable way… a way that didn't bring guilt with it.

Then, I chose to turn that fear and into inspiration. After all, this is a chance to change an entire industry and inspire generations of artists to do better. And now I’ll GET to experiment with new materials, techniques and ideas in the studio. If I was able to go through this torturous mental process and come out the other end with more drive and ambition than ever before, then I'm sure other artists can experience that too.

It’s difficult to not totally freak out and start analyzing every single aspect of life in regards to plastic use and ecological footprint. But that's completely overwhelming and I'll end up running away to become a monk on a Himalayan hilltop if I don't slap myself back to reality. We don't need to be eco-perfect in all areas of life. My belief is that if everyone just focused of taking what they are most passionate about, and shift it towards becoming more human, earth and animal friendly, the world would be a better place.

For those whose passion is their art, I challenge you to join me and start to make that shift in your own art practice. The Art Detox Challenge was created to educate, encourage and challenge artists and art supply manufacturers to find, develop and use safe and environmentally conscious solutions for art making.

It’s time for artists to step back and take inventory of their art making and the footprint it leaves on their own health and the health of the environment. It's also time to hold art supply manufactures accountable and push them towards developing safer and more environmentally friendly products… like, right NOW! Even if it's just changing a few things in your studio, you will be a part of the solution.

Let us use our collective creativity and power to create serious change in the industry we are most passionate about.

The challenge starts now. And I'm starting right along side you.

- Erik Abel, /

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