Health & Wellness

The Cost of Art

by Amanda Bedgood

Photo by Robin May
Artists Joshua Murrell and Melissa Bonin work to balance art and safety

With great work often comes health risks.

Nearly a decade ago artist Melissa Bonin began to feel the physical results of years behind the canvas. Today, the reactions are palpable, and she’s looking for a way to keep her health and her beloved profession.

“We lose our eyesight and our hand function. Monet couldn’t see … if you use any part of your body to that degree you will have signs of wear,” says the artist, who paints with oils.

What began as an acute reaction to chemicals in the materials she uses has turned into much more, and now Bonin can feel an immediate reaction to some of the glazes she uses.

“I smell them and feel my air passages getting smaller,” she says.

Bonin changed her work habits and tried to balance her health and her art, moving from seven days a week that often also went late into the night trying to make a name for herself to three days in the studio.

The artist focused on the business side of her art and moved forward. Today, however, the issues have become chronic, and she’s fighting chemical bronchitis.

“I had to have a come to Jesus meeting and figure out exactly what I’m going to do, and it was very earthshaking,” she says.

She took a two-month break and tried other options like water-soluble paint. She has a three-pronged system she’s ready to start that will allow her to keep using her favorite oil paint.

“It’s like a space suit .. I didn’t want to give up oil paint,” she says.

People have suggested she work outside. But, it’s a tall order for her method. Bugs, wind and the weather aren’t conducive to oil paints that take time to dry.

She’s also installing a ventilation system and a respirator. At the end of the day the toxins will be sucked right out of the room she uses. And during the day she will have a fi lter going to keep the air clean and safe.

“It’s treated carbon that takes certain kinds of toxins in the air out,” she says. “You can’t just get an air purifier.”

Bonin finding a way through the issue wasn’t a question. She knew there had to be a balance to keep her art and protect her health. She called on fellow artist and friend Joshua Murrell. The Grammy winner (for his work on Terrance Simien’s award-winning album) himself makes instruments that often use dangerous materials to coat the finished product.

“I’ve been lucky and I’ve taken precautions,” Murrell says. “A dear friend died of emphysema, and he painted guitars, and I was very aware of being careful with my lungs.”

He says the industry is changing to use water-based paints, and it’s getting better.

“It’s weird that the art we can make can hurt us,” he says.

From a psychological standpoint it hasn’t been easy for Bonin. But, in the true spirit of an artist she’s rising above and she’s making a way. She’s open to the possibilities on a path that wasn’t in her plan.

“Artists are creative by nature and will find a way around it,” she says.