Studio injuries and scars were once heralded as badges of bravado, but over the past several years, universities, craft schools, and individual artists have started focusing on improving studio safety and avoiding injury. Efforts include addressing fire hazards, upgrading ventilation systems, and methodically training students about safety. Risky practices that were acceptable 30 years ago are no longer tolerated due to a combination of increased regulations and a greater focus on individual well-being. Safety IS the new sexy!
University and Craft School Studios Setting the Standard
University and craft school studios reach large numbers of artists. Visiting artists, conference and workshop attendees, and workshop instructors all use these facilities as well as regular students and faculty. What artists see in these workspaces directly influences their own studio practice; in an ideal world, they serve as a model in which studio safety is a fully integrated priority. Working in a clean, well-designed, safe studio not only reduces risk, but is so much more appealing than one that is cluttered and filled with hazards. Artists walk away not only with their newfound knowledge and techniques, but they also take away the message that their safety is important.
In reality, capturing the attention of students about safety is not an easy task. To cajole her students into taking safety seriously, Alison Pack, Full Professor of Metalsmithing and Jewelry Design at Radford University, packs a good dose of humor into her creative messaging with her “Safety is Sexy” campaign. Pack has worked in a jewelry/metals studio for 26 years and reflects upon how her experience as a first-generation college student in her first studio metals class influenced how she teaches safety.
“The learning environment was one of survival. I have a vivid memory of standing around our professor. He had a massive glass beaker of cyanide with wires and clips coming out of it that were attached to a car battery. We all took turns gold plating our pieces with no goggles, masks, gloves, or ventilation. I was also learning basic foundry bronze casting. I didn’t own a pair of goggles or an N95 mask, and I was never told that I needed them. The professor pointed at a machine and said, ‘Walk over there and buff your piece.’ I turned the buffing machine on, and my one-pound brass sculpture popped me really good in the face.
From this experience as a student, when I began teaching, an introduction to safety was my highest priority. I made goggles and dust masks mandatory as well as hair being tied back and wearing closed toe shoes. However, it is not always easy to get college age students on board. I heard complaints. ‘I look dorky with goggles on.’ ‘What if the goggles give me zits?’ I was always sporting my goggles and my N95 dust mask. Running in and out of my classroom and into my office, I would forget that I had them on. It was just second nature, and I flaunted my safety accessories along with fun, colorful clothes and jewelry. It became a classroom culture. That’s when I started the catch phrase, ‘Safety is Sexy!’ Surprisingly, just like school children, college kids got giddy over anything that dealt with sex. It just clicked.
My students would run around in their safety gear and giggle, ‘Safety is Sexy!’ Occasionally when someone forgot to put their goggles on and I caught them on the flex-shaft or belt sander, I would say, ‘You know, Johnny Depp is the only person that is sexy in an eye patch.’
I am the ultimate girly girl and love all things feminine, which is reflected in my work. I coined myself as a “glamoursmith” because I love to look glamourous in the studio with cute clothes, hair, and makeup. However, goggles and a dust mask became my most essential accessories. Hello Kitty became our studio mascot, and the Hello Kitty Safety is Sexy badge was born in 2010, complete with rhinestones. I would show this in my talks at other schools and the ‘Safety is Sexy’ campaign started to trickle across the country.
Ultimately, we love our craft and being makers. That love is best demonstrated by maintaining a high level of safety practice within our own studio practices. It is our job to educate the next generation of makers to the best of our ability. Simply stated, ‘Safety is Sexy.'”
Elise Preiss’s humor is a bit darker, and she presents her students with instruction on par with a B-rated horror film. Preiss, who teaches blacksmithing, jewelry, and enameling classes at Cal State Long Beach in addition to private classes out of her independent studio in Torrance, CA, created a set of staged, attention-grabbing photos to communicate her points about safety.
Many studio artists derive part of their income from teaching workshops in craft schools, universities, and private studios. The setup and safety standards of these studios is important not just for the students, but for the individual artists who teach there.
If you are a visiting artist teaching a workshop, generally you are considered an independent contractor and won’t be covered by workers’ compensation if you get injured while teaching a workshop. Could you also be held liable if your student is injured? (You can purchase supplemental insurance for teaching and demonstrating. I teach 6-10 workshops a year and pay $125/year for professional liability-well worth it for the peace of mind it provides).
Last year, the John Campbell Folk School renovated its Enameling Studio. The old linoleum and rubber flooring, with its dozens of burn marks from hot objects that were dropped over the years, was ripped up, exposing bare concrete and greatly reducing fire danger. Sturdy, steel work tables replaced wobbly folding tables. The removal of clutter (old equipment, tools, and stuff) made the room a much safer, more functional space. One of the highlights of this studio is that each kiln has a fireproof space beside it so that students can immediately set down hot work and allow it to cool. Class sizes are now limited to six to allow students to work without bumping into one another.
Studio Safety for Individual Studio Artists
When the process of making becomes second nature and you are your own boss as most artists are, it is easy to downplay risk and justify our behaviors. How many of us are guilty of wearing flip-flops in our studios on a hot summer day? Of sanding for just a while without a mask, telling ourselves we’re simply holding our breath? Those are the visible hazards, staring us in the face.
Equally pernicious are the invisible hazards that lurk behind the drywall, in the vents, etc. Old or faulty wiring could cause a fire, and fumes that aren’t evacuated out of a workspace can damage our health over the long term. Even clutter built up over decades can become invisible if we have been living with it for so long that we no longer notice it filling up the walkways and causing tripping hazards.
The acceptable level of risk tolerance will vary from artist to artist, but safety in private artist studios now plays a role well beyond the individual artist. Because of the pandemic, many artists began hosting virtual workshops from their own studios, sometimes teaching independently and other times through established craft schools through their virtual programming. For example, Pocosin Arts School of Fine Craft is offering 23 virtual workshops in January 2022 alone. They accept up to 25 students per workshop, yielding a potential audience of 575. Students from all over the country and beyond are now able to peer into private artist studios, and what they see will directly influence their artistic practice.
Now that the bustle of holiday events is over, as we look ahead to 2022, we invite you to participate in our #GetReadyChallenge2022. Take a good look at your studio and your craft practice and ask yourself what you can do to create a safer working environment. We are here to help by offering our free Studio Safety Guide. CERF+ will also be opening the next round of Get Ready Grants in February. These grants help artists safeguard their studios, protect their careers and prepare for emergencies.
Join us for Week 1 of CERF+’s Get Ready Challenge: Get a Basic Safety Tool / Assess Your Risks
This week, take a step to protect yourself against injury and your studio against risk. Get a basic safety tool and begin assessing your risks! Here are some suggestions and a helpful link:
- Fire extinguisher
- Eye Protection
- Protective Gloves
- Assess Your Risks with CERF+’s Studio Protector
- Follow @CERFplus on Instagram to participate in the challenge and see what other artists are doing