We had booked on a curator's tour of the Ursula von exhibition, held as part of the Museums at Night event. The curator, Sarah Coulton led us on a tour around the rooms in the Underground gallery telling us about how the exhibition was put together, how Ursula works and giving her thoughts on some of the main pieces. It was really interesting to get the curator's perspective and getting insights on the artist's methods and motiivations.
Like most occupational hygienists, I find it difficult to switch off completely. So I couldn't help but wonder about whether the artist had experienced any problems due to exposure to wood dust, as the nature of her work and working methods must mean that she has a regular, significant exposure to wood dust. Western Red Cedar is a potent respiratory sensitiser causing rhinitis and allergic asthma. I found out the answer at the end of the tour when Sarah showed us a photograph of the artist wearing an a powered hood type respirator and told us that she had to wear it as she had become sensitised to the wood dust. In an interview she tells us
I wear respirators, not just the paper masks. And I hate the respirators. There’s a tremendous weight. I’m getting dents in my face, but I have to do it. I’m allergic to cedar because it’s been with me for so long.
Engineering controls, such as local exhaust ventilation would not be practicable. So the use of respiratory protection is the only option – other than avoiding exposure to the dust, and that would mean the end of her career as an artist – unless she changed to working in a different medium, probably not an easy decision for her after making a mark by working in wood in her own unique way. Perhaps she could have avoided developing asthma if she had taken precautions early in her career. But i suspect, that she, like many other workers, was not aware of the risk, or if she was didn't think she would be affected. Asthma is a debilitating condition, and although it is not fatal too often, it affects quality of life. And as a consequence Ursula knows the meaning of “suffering for her art”.