The British artist Tracey Emin says she has had insomnia for the past ten years and that her insomnia has gotten more and more soul-destroying. I can relate to this. When I was the most ill, after I had been chemically reinjured by an unknown environmental toxin in an office space I had just moved into, my primary symptom of neurological disruption was deep, crippling and non-negotiable insomnia. I was exhausted but couldn’t sleep, night after night, my brain impaired by the chemical exposure and unable to make the necessary transition from wakefulness to healing unconsciousness.
Tracey Emin has a new show featuring an Insomnia Room Installation, with large selfies of her own exhausted and miserable face as she is unable to sleep. In Emin’s ravaged face I see a poignant echo of my own misery and can’t help but wonder if it was her art materials that did this to her. Here is the argument: my illness taught me that insomnia is an indicator of neurological disruption, environmental chemicals are great neurological disruptors, and artists are surrounded by cocktails of chemicals in their studios and while working on their art pieces.
The mad artist (“mad” as in crazy) is an eternal trope. Why are these people distressed, disturbed, or even insane? Because they are living in their studio spaces and are being poisoned by their materials! Or, if they are lucky enough to have separate living and working spaces, because they nevertheless have considerable exposure to solvents, toxic dusts, etc., either airborne or inadvertently ingested through the skin or mouth. Why is this a mystery to anyone!? It is blindingly obvious.
The issue is not the art supplies. The issue is the denial. I argue that at some level, Tracey Emin knows that her studio work is destroying her sleep. She has a huge, lovely and active life and is unwilling to stare reality in the face because that would mean compromising her creative output. And this is the same bargain humanity makes generally with respect to the chemicals around us, that are destroying and diminishing us. We are unwilling to move toward smaller lives, using workarounds that may initially be more trouble than the easy chemistry-based solutions we have come to rely on. Should Emin move to a small, environmentally “clean” house in the countryside and take up watercolors? Maybe, if she wants to sleep well. But even then she shouldn’t expect change overnight. The kind of neurological disruption she is likely to have, if her crippling insomnia is any measure, will take a while to heal. Almost nine years after I was made so terribly ill by that toxic job space, I’m still clawing my way back to wellness. This slow upward trajectory has only been possible because I changed ALL of the mechanics of my life in order to get the damaging chemistry out of it.
What can you do? At the very least pay attention to the art supplies used by your children at school and at home and become involved in sourcing the art supplies that your children use so that they are less toxic or non-toxic. Consider protective devices like masks and gloves. Ventilate properly. If you have studio-type space in your home, consider how you can isolate that space from your sleeping area especially. If you have already been noticeably adversely affected, more drastic measures may be necessary for your neurology to heal. Most importantly, do not subscribe to faith-based beliefs that these chemical-based or chemical-infused materials are safe for you and exercise skepticism and caution with respect to them. There is no free lunch. These substances have terrible hidden costs.