Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Metal Clay Safety
Kate McKinnon has posted an update (I find I cannot link directly to the post for some reason - it's one of the July 22, 2009 entries) concerning her metal clay safety project, and I thought I would let you know that it's there (if you are not already following her blog, of course) and briefly weigh in on the issue.
Kate's position on safety - which requires no kiln-firing in classrooms, less (no) sanding, no burnout of styrofoam cores, among other things - has generated certain controversy from the outset. Now, I have never taken a class on metal clay - I have no practical idea how the classes are generally run or what the physical conditions are actually like from best to worst. Also, because I started working with the material at a time when I was otherwise pretty busy raising my infant son, I worked and continue to work in isolation from the metal clay community near where I live - which I think is both a blessing and a curse (but is a topic for another day). However, the bottom line for me is that Kate's information made a practical difference to someone like me, who is completely self-taught from books, at a time when I really needed the information.
As far as I know, I started working with metal clay a few months before Kate first widely starting posting about safety issues, around mid-2007. At the time, I had not yet bought my kiln, was still learning how to control the clay (whom am I kidding - I am still working on this) and was, as a result, sanding excessively and working without any sort of respirator. I didn't have any severe symptoms, but I was experiencing some respiratory irritation (which I did not immediately connect to the clay). After reading Kate's informational posts and the ensuing dialogue with other metal clay artists, I adopted certain changes in the way I work. I bought my kiln, which I store in our detached garage and fire outside, I work with sponges to "finish" bone-dry clay as much as possible and when I do sand (which I still do more than I would like), I work in a well-ventilated area away from the house, wear a mask rated for metalwork and make every attempt to "contain" the resulting dust. The respiratory irritation disappeared, and I feel more confident that my work is not having an adverse impact on my or my family's health (I always worry about the Short One, in this regard).
Now, I have to confess - I have not adopted all of Kate's recommendations wholesale. I definitely still do a few things (like the sanding I do - some of which I'm sure could be eliminated if I could just put my brain to it) of which I'm sure Kate wouldn't approve. Also, from a practical perspective, there's pretty much no way I would have spent the money for a kiln from the outset without experimenting for a while with the significantly less expensive torch (she does not recommend torch-firing). However, I don't believe it's possible to have too much information when it comes to this topic. The important thing for me is that Kate's forthright stance on this issue and insistence on holding a dialogue on the topic with artists who disagree with her findings helped me make a more informed decision on how to continue working with this wonderful material.
Frankly, whether you agree with Kate's findings or not - the fact that she continues to raise the issue is extremely important, especially for people like me who are relatively new to the field and who would otherwise not be focusing on this type of information or not know where to find it. So, if you are also relatively new to metal clay or thinking of working with it or are just looking for more information on the topic, I highly recommend checking out Kate's website or reading the safety section in her excellent book, Structural Metal Clay. What you decide to do, of course, is ultimately up to you, but educating yourself on potential safety issues is well-worth your time. As for me, Kate's recommendations had a very practical effect on the way I work, and I'm definitely happier for the changes I adopted as a result.