Visual Arts An often-overlooked hazard of artmaking — other than poverty — is the toxicity of certain materials and methods. Donna Adams, on the faculty of the University of Indianapolis’ Art Department, refused to study and teach the medium of intaglio etching because, as she puts it, “Printmakers using intaglio techniques tend to have a short lifespan. They poison themselves to death.” In other words, those beautiful prints you see hanging in prestigious museums the world over, including our own Indianapolis Museum of Art, often took an awful toll on the artist making them. 'Footbridge over Little Blue' by Donna Adams. Adams has established one of the first non-toxic, intaglio-type printmaking studios in the country.Adams’ concern for the health and safety of artists, and the environment, were the impetus behind her effort to establish one of the first non-toxic, intaglio-type printmaking studios in the country, now fully operational at the University of Indianapolis. The results of Adams’ efforts as well as those of six of her students are on view in the Indianapolis Art Center’s National Non-Toxic Printmaking Invitational (open through July 4), as part of the IAC’s larger Focus on Printmaking exhibition (reviewed in NUVO’s May 19, 2004, edition).
But Adams didn’t invent the methods — she simply recognized them, and adapted their use to the benefit of her own health and that of her students.
Printmaking as an artistic medium covers vast territory, and not all methods are considered lethal. The detail and texture achieved through intaglio methods, though, have long afforded artists the opportunity to conceive of and create tremendously detailed imagery, which was particularly important prior to the advent of photography. Often, intaglio techniques were the only way an artist could illustrate a story to a wider audience. Rembrandt, for instance, used and perfected etching techniques, and his limited edition prints still fetch prodigious prices in the art market.
Intagio, a general term encompassing a number of printmaking techniques, includes etching. “Traditional etching, which is only one intaglio process, requires an acid to eat into the metal to make those areas hold ink,” Adams explains. “The chemical works very fast. So etching is the favorite method because it’s the quickest method of getting recessions in the metal plate that will hold ink.”
Why is etching, in particular, so hazardous? “The nitric acid is hard on us,” Adams says.
“Nitric acid is toxic to our liver and our mucus membranes. And it requires putting tar where you don’t want the acid to get to. And tar is hard on the liver and the nervous system and it’s also addictive.”
The non-toxic printmaking story begins with Adams’ non-toxic printmaking mentor, Keith Howard (whose work is included in the Art Center exhibition). “Keith Howard was told by the doctors he could never do printmaking again because he was ruining his liver,” Adams says. “So he started experimenting with safer ways of getting impressions in a metal plate, safer ways of etching.” Howard attacked the problem “from the direction of how to get the image on the plate,” Adams adds. Howard’s methods are based on a photo-transfer technique.
“Keith Howard and Friedhard Kiebeken are the two people who have contributed the most to improving the safety of intaglio for etching,” Adams says. Kiebeken identified safer but still fast types of acids, including citric acid. “He also came up with the idea of using acrylic wax as the coating to put on the areas of the plate where you don’t want the areas to etch.”
Adams plans further study with both Kiebeken and Howard when she travels to Scotland for workshops this August. Upon her return, she will prepare for a one-person show at the Grover Museum in Shelbyville that will run Sept. 16-Oct. 18. Adams will also exhibit a one-person show of new work at the University of Indianapolis Jan. 17-Feb. 4, which will include Adams’ photography as well as printmaking.
The University of Indianapolis, Adams claims, is “definitely in the forefront of the number of schools that are doing it. Keith Howard told me that I was about the fourth school to do it … and he told me that there were only about 40 schools in the country [that] do this.”
For more information about the University of Indianapolis non-toxic printmaking program, call Donna Adams at 788-6128. Find out more about the Indianapolis Art Center exhibit by calling 255-2464 or visit www.indplsartcenter.org.