Zygote Operation Green

The artists who run Zygote Press had an “a-ha” moment in 2013, when they decided it was time to lock away mineral spirits, glaze cleaner, lithotine, and other toxic tools of the print trade, and replace them with canola oil, vinegar, water and tallow. Now, supported by a grant from the George Gund Foundation, Ohio’s largest artist-run print shop is going green.

Starting in April, Zygote permanently banished petrochemicals– such as asphaltum-based plate grounds used in intaglio etching, and its accompanying nitric acid bath– in exchange for materials that can be cleaned with common dish soap. The benefits include a safer, less-toxic environment for artists, as well as reduced impact on the waters of Lake Erie.

To assist in this transition, they enlisted Liz Chalfin, director of Zea Mays Printmaking in Florence, Massachusetts. Chalfin is a master printmaker who has championed a safe and sustainable practice for decades. Her own work to remove toxicity from the process began in California, when her print department was moved to a poorly ventilated basement.

The issue I discovered is we’re not chemists,” she said during her presentation at Zygote. “We had to train ourselves and trust what our bodies were telling us.”

Chalfin demonstrated etching using a material marketed as BIG Ground. She showed how it is “set” in a toaster oven, produces no smell, becomes hard as nails, makes sharp lines under the etching needle, and can be cleaned with soda ash and water.

Chalfin shared the collective knowledge of her shop through technique after technique. Her demo of the finicky aquatint process elicited nods, followed by loads of questions. A display of finished work made with green techniques conveyed that the processes means no diminution of quality.

The effort has real implications for Zygote printmakers, some of whom have had to put their art careers on temporary hiatus due to chemical sensitivities. Staff anticipated that the impact on indoor air quality would be felt immediately.

In addition to creating a safer indoor environment, the effort removes the threat of chemical runoff to our most precious natural resource, Lake Erie. Thus the norm in printmaking — to neutralize the acids and pour them down the drain — is being challenged by a new generation interested in making a mark without leaving one permanently on people and planet.

Zygote Press

1410 East 30th Street

Cleveland, Ohio 44114



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