Confronting petrochemical culture


Gilbert Grace writes:

As a painter, with an interest in the sustainable use of materials and resources, I see common threads linking traditional painting methods, agriculture, housing, and food production.

The painting ‘supports’ – canvas, timber and the natural size used to prime and glue the them together, are sourced from the land. Canvas is the word the Dutch gave to hemp based cloth, and comes from the Dutch pronunciation of cannabis, long before the introduction of cotton ‘duck’ from the Dutch ‘doek’. Both are types of canvas that have origins as sail cloth, and were to the age of sail what oil was to the 20th century internal combustion engine. The HMS Challenger, seen in this painting by William Frederick Mitchell (circa 1880, wikipedia commons), had hemp sails. The history of sail extends to early trading and colonising efforts. Vikings used hemp as a sail cloth for light winds. More robust sails made of wool and sized with animal glue were developed to tolerate gusting winds, as they were more elastic and resilient to gales. Animal hides, like seal and some land animals, were the basis of rigging because they were so resilient to water, salt and ice.

Gilbert Grace at Cementa 17, displaying hemp-based textiles made by weaver  Kelly Leonard .

Gilbert Grace at Cementa 17, displaying hemp-based textiles made by weaver Kelly Leonard.

The ‘rabbit skin glue’ use to seal, prime and keep the painting canvas taut, is obtained by boiling down animal hides and bones.

Timber is a valuable natural resource that must be grown and harvested with skill and care, and reused appropriately. Wasted timber is a waste of imagination. The sources of hemp for sail cloth have also been the source of timber for hulls, decking, masts and spars.

Paints are composed of natural products more commonly thought of as food. Egg tempera uses egg whites proving a fast drying, light, long lasting paint film. Casein paint come from mixing pigments with cows’ milk. Pigments are comprised of raw, cooked and burnt earths, powdered metal and their oxides, semi-precious gems stones, naturally occurring or with minimal preparation including the use of heat. Oils for painting came from edible seed crops, hemp, sunflower, linseed, that oxidise and form a hard film when exposed to air. Pigments become paint when ground to a fine paste with pestle and mortar and combined with an oil medium. The heat treatment of the oil prior to mixing starts the process of polymerisation, rapidly increasing ‘drying’ time. The addition of siccatives reduces the drying time of oils even further.

The argument for acrylics being superior to oils as a painting medium is countered by the persistence of plastics in the environment: our blindness to petroleum based plastic is, in fact, a triumph of marketing. Natural fabrics and hides have also been displaced by synthetic petrochemical “plastics” for sail and boating use.

The great floating garbage patches of the Southern and Northern Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans are composed of plastics pollution, either as cast aside drift nets or aggregated waste, killing sea life and water birds. This is due to the fact that sustainable products like hemp have been written out of history and we have been seduced into accepting the widespread use of petrochemical products with their toxic by-products and, toxic social and political impacts. Thus our manufactured reliance on petrochemicals in many of our current sailing, building and food production processes, as well as many forms of art, forces us to recognise that if we are to eliminate these products we have to acknowledge that we are confronting serious questions of culture.