February, last year, I taught a painting class on color theory, and oil glaze techniques at Santa Fe University. Early in the semester I went home with a headache and nausea. I hadn’t exposed myself to anything unusual that day. The next morning, I woke up with what felt like a hangover, and from that day on I could no longer set foot in my painting classroom without feeling sick the rest of the day. I also could no longer enter my own studio! I had become sensitized to the solvents and cleaning agents used in my painting practice.
My life turned upside-down, as I learned to cope with the sudden onset of these new physical ailments related to my work. Aside from the emotions of fearing I may never paint again, I became physically sick when I walked down the detergent isle at a grocery store, entered a mechanic shop, or inadvertently set foot in a room where someone was painting their nails. On the worst day, I simply walked past the janitor cleaning cart at my daughter’s school and subsequently felt sick for hours afterwards. As well as nausea and headache, I had the new experience of my reptilian brain’s fight or flight response, along with “brain fog,” which felt like early onset dementia.
You can imagine this past year was quite a ride. I revamped the painting studios at the school — switched students to a solvent-free painting medium and canola oil for washing brushes. However, I did not want to short change my class, so I continued to teach a traditional technique that required small amounts of mineral spirits to build “lean to fat” glaze layers of oil. To avoid consistent nausea and headaches, I finished up (what would ultimately be my last semester teaching at SFUAD) with the students painting en plein air.
I changed my own studio practices too: solvent-free mediums, new ventilation system, and a respirator when working long hours or working on large surfaces with mineral spirits. Thankfully I had guidance from chemist, artist, and one of our nation’s leading experts in industrial hygiene, Monona Rossol. I met Monona when she was consulting SFUAD, and then by chance sat next to her on the red-eye to New York. She is a national treasure and worth looking up.
One of the known, and more obvious, cures to chemical sensitivity is to stay away from chemicals. For nearly six months, I spent as much time as possible in fresh air, both hiking and skiing. Sounds like fun right? I relied on a surplus of paintings in my studio to sustain my income. (Fortunately, 2016 was my best year ever in sales!) I sought out the healing council of friends, and had an unexpected encounter with a Lakota heyoka when I was in Standing Rock, ND last Fall. I am further convinced this is a shared dream, and any situation can be transformed.
Within the past two months, I have only had one episode, which is a major improvement. I was in my studio, starting to get brain fog and went home feeling sick. It didn’t make sense because I was working with watercolors that week. I called my studio neighbors to inquire and was surprised to hear, “nothing toxic going on over here, just cleaning floors with plain ol’ bleach and Fabuloso.” Bingo! I will assume all my readers understand the level of toxicity in those two products, especially combined. I bought my neighbors non-toxic cleaners. Problem solved.
Today, I am happy to say that my condition has improved and is now manageable. I have new rules about diet, studio practice and lifestyle, but I am — for the most part — back in action! I no longer wonder, Will I feel sick today? Also during the time away from my studio, I was able to reflect on my work and put new energy into my vision and career. I became inspired to work on new, long-term projects, which are currently in motion but I cannot announce yet. Be ready for exciting news!
This article also appeared in Pyragraph, April 2017.