December 3, 2018

"To be fair to my doctors, they did ask me, 'Are you working with anything toxic?' And I’d say, 'No no, I’m working with all natural materials, and we’d all move on,'"

"I was so certain that these mussels, which the government said I could eat safely and buy in the market as food, could never be bad for me."

Said Gillian Genser, quoted in "An artist suffered mysterious symptoms for years. Then she realized her sculpture was poisoning her" (WaPo).
She felt agitated. She’d wake up nearly unable to move. Hearing vanished from one ear. Her muscles cramped and her speech slurred....

For 15 years, Genser had been grinding up mussel shells to create a sculpture of Adam, the first man... By using a natural material, like mussel shells, to depict a biblical character, she wanted to comment on humanity’s skewed relationship with the now-contaminated natural world.
But the shells contained lead and arsenic from the polluted environment, and she was inhaling the dust. It's very sad that this woman got poisoned, but I don't think inhaling shell dust is ever a good idea. She was working 12 hours a day for years grinding shells with a dentist's drill, and I'm not seeing that she used any sort of respirator or dust-protection mask. And some of her description of the intention of the artwork seems like an after-the-fact grasping at greater meaning:
“The work was an environmental statement. It’s about reconsidering what people’s first perception of the ecosystem should have been, rather than this idea that we have dominion over all the animals,” she said. “So it’s very interesting and ironic that Adam, as the first man, was so toxic. He poisoned me. Doesn’t that make sense, because we poisoned the world starting with this very poor notion?"
But what isn't an after-after-the-fact grasping at greater meaning? Why are we talking about "Adam" in the first place?

ALSO: What sort of doctors accept the idea of "natural materials" as a good enough answer? There are many toxins and allergens in nature!

80 comments:

James Smith said...

Sawdust from some species of wood - like cherry - are toxic. The death angel mushroom is extremely toxic. All natural products of Mother Gaia.

Kirk Parker said...

What kind of person--any kind, not just artists--thinks a dentist's drill is the right way to grind up shells into enough powder for a sculpture?

15 years???

Ralph L said...

I was about to say, what a ditz!, but my cats gave me chronic indigestion for over 10 years and 4 doctors and I didn't figure it out. As an artist, she should know about lead paint though.

Why are we talking about "Adam" in the first place?

Because I brought him up in the Bush Dog post?

Nonapod said...

So it’s very interesting and ironic that Adam, as the first man, was so toxic

That's not ironic. Maybe in the Alanis Morissette definition of the word.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Are you working with anything toxic?' And I’d say, 'No no, I’m working with all natural materials...'

Sounds like she wouldn't know toxic materials from Adam...

Kirk Parker said...

Oh I see. It's just bad writing...

Ignorance is Bliss said...

I was so certain that these mussels, which the government said I could eat safely and buy in the market as food, could never be bad for me.

On the one hand, that is a disturbing level of trust in the government. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure the government wasn't expecting her to eat the shells.

Mark said...

The work was an environmental statement

Her brain was already poisoned long before she ever picked up a single mussel.

Dave Begley said...

And Ann focuses in on the future med mal case.

Henry said...

Even 30 years ago the schools I went to warned students about toxic materials. I guess no one warned us about mussel shells, though.

tim maguire said...

There's a lot here that doesn't make sense. 15 years to make a single sculpture? Using a dentist's drill instead of a spice grinder or even a mortar and pestle? Breathing all that dust and not connecting it to feeling lousy? Her doctor accepting the "natural materials" answer--every doctor (virtually every person) knows that nature is full of things that will kill you.

Ralph L said...

The metallic finishes on her egg sculpture look to be a source of poison, too.

Koot Katmandu said...

Wow making a point on the environment by killing and grinding up the mussel. Poor Mussels? I hope she ate them too or death was meaningless. Was the meat poison too? Or just harvesting Shells like Buffalo skins?

gilbar said...

I was so certain that these mussels, which the government said I could eat safely and buy in the market as food, could never be bad for me."

I'm not entirely sure that if the government tells you it's okay to Eat Mussels, that means that they mean it's okay to be grinding up mussel shells and inhaling the dust.

Let's see (off the top of my head)
Does the government tell you it's okay to eat raw pork?
Does the government tell you it's okay to gather a handful of apple seeds, and eat them?
Does the government tell you it's okay to buy a bag of flour, put it into your vacuum cleaner, turn the blower around; and spray flour all through your closed living room, with a fire in the fireplace?

{bonus points to anyone try to make a dust explosion WHILE chewing cyanide apple seeds}

Fernandistein said...

The oldest computer can be traced back to Adam and Eve; it was an apple with limited memory, only one byte.

Q: Are you working with anything natural?
A: No no, I’m working with only toxic materials.

mockturtle said...

There are some people who are astonished to learn that arsenic, lead and cyanide are 'natural materials'. When a package say's 'all natural' ingredients it means nothing.

Fernandistein said...

Another internet frenzy!

glenn said...

Another idiot self identifies.

Darrell said...

She should chew on the WaPo as she works. Particularly the Sunday Magazine supplement.

Kevin said...

It was also organic, low fat, no-MSG, and gluten free! And I guess by definition, also artisanal. So, what's the problem?

Phidippus said...

You're not supposed to eat the shells?

Robert Cook said...

"On the one hand, that is a disturbing level of trust in the government. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure the government wasn't expecting her to eat the shells."

If the shells contained toxic chemicals, one can assume the mussels did too.

Robert Cook said...

I really like her sculptures!

tcrosse said...

She was grinding up shells using a tool ill-suited to the purpose.
Mr Natural sez, Get
the Right Tool for the Job

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Robert Cook said...

If the shells contained toxic chemicals, one can assume the mussels did too.

Everything contains toxic chemicals. The relevant question is if the meat contains harmful levels of those toxic chemicals. And there is no reason to assume that the meat contains harmful levels just because the shell does. Different chemicals end up concentrated in different parts of the mussel.

Big Mike said...

Uranium ore is a natural material.

gilbar said...

back in the '80's, when we had excuses* for being stupid,
I knew a girl at Iowa State; that walked the roadways looking for roadkill, so she could use the skins to make sculptures. She ended up dying of some parasitic infection.

excuses* drugs, Drugs DRUGS! (duh!)

Ralph L said...

Robert Cook said...
I really like her sculptures!

This is superb! I like it too.
Blogging said...

Lyssa said...

Lead and Arsenic are both natural.

Ralph L said...

It's likely the mussels noticed they were getting headaches and put the toxic metals in their shells to feel better.

Leland said...

I'm sure you could put an honest label that says "All Natural" on a container of mercury and get health conscious people to drink it without question.

Ingachuck'stoothlessARM said...

so why are we talking about Adam?

Adam, the Poisonous Progenitor of the Patriarchy

who better to blame for her bad choices?

Darrell said...

As of 1980 or so, there was only ONE molecule that couldn't be found in nature. That was PCB. We synthesize many molecules in order to provide sufficient quantities for our needs. But they were first discovered in nature.

JHapp said...

Why are artist more important than anyone else?

stevew said...

So much stupid and so little common sense.

As for the doctors, why indeed did they not ask for a list of the 'natural materials' she was using? Is it true she was visiting the doctor because she was ill, had symptoms that indicated poisoning of some sort? May not add up to malpractice but surely indicates incompetence.

Robert Cook said...

"Why are artist more important than anyone else?"

Because art is all that lasts. Humankind's notes to eternity.

Jerry said...

Maybe she really, really liked the sound of a dentist's drill? I mean 'REALLY' liked it. That shudder that a lot of people get when listening to the high-pitched whine may have been something completely different and very enjoyable for her. (Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.)

That's about the only thing I can imagine that would make me want to listen to one for 15 years of 'artistic creation'.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

ALSO: What sort of doctors accept the idea of "natural materials" as a good enough answer? There are many toxins and allergens in nature!

Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals...[first sentence of Wikipedia entry "Asbestos"]

Char Char Binks said...

"What sort of doctors accept the idea of "natural materials" as a good enough answer?"

Who says they did? A woman who gave herself arsenic poisoning.

FullMoon said...

She bought shells in bulk at Chinese market. Should have worn a mask while grinding.
Point of story was how evil humans are poisoning environment.

Only took four comments to bring Trump into it, couple more comments before evil Bush was mentioned.

iowan2 said...

WOW. I just clicked in. 41 comments precede me.

M Jordan said...

Adam was a real person. The genealogy of Jesus traces through him in Luke. Adam also is an allegorical figure. Paul calls him “The first man Adam” which he parallels to “the last Adam,” that is Christ.

Last week Althouse introduced us to the word Euhemerism, the idea that mythological events and characters are rooted in reality. Adam of the Bible is Exhibit A.

dda6ga dda6ga said...

Well for 37 years I could have answered "Yep, lead, soft nose 38s" Now closer to 80 than 70 and will give you the following advice; stay away from the croakers unless you really, really sick..

Etienne said...

I love those old youtube videos showing car manufacturing. The painters used no protection. There's one about the first Corvette and six guys are laying glass with no protection, and dressed like milk men.

Back then people were expected to be dead before social security eligibility.

mockturtle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mockturtle said...

Arsenic and lead are natural but are mineral elements and not organic. Cyanide is natural and organic. All are gluten-free. ;-D

Steven said...

Who says they did? A woman who gave herself arsenic poisoning.

Exactly. No doctor can stop an idiot from being an idiot.

gspencer said...

Poison ivy is as natural as imaginable. Try working with it.

iowan2 said...

Everyone has already noted that nature is rife with natural killers. Dr's would/should delve deeper on follow up questions. Much like the handyman that works with wood, a Dr would ask about exposure and the use of personal protective gear. Artist, by their nature, would have the potential to find toxins in their wide ranging choice of medium. I would think a cursory physical with a look eye,ears, nose and throat. Lung Xrays, blood work looking for heavy metals, etc.

As to eating vs inhaling toxins, inhalation ranks up toward the top of paths of entry into the body, for toxins. Dermal is pretty low, but I always wear gloves, putting stuff in your mouth is obvious. Making the ASSUMPTION that the govt would surly tell me if something is dangerous, displaces personal responsibility, for the govt. Not wise.

Etienne said...

Cocaine and heroin are natural materials. Hell, eating magnets is a natural material...

Yancey Ward said...

I don't believe a single word of this story, not a single one.

Jersey Fled said...

At the risk of sounding like a sceptic, I seriously doubt that the amount of lead and arsenic in mussel shells is high enough to cause damage to anyone's health. I'm too busy to look it up now, but I'm guessing it's in the parts per billion range.

People like to find causes for things. Several years ago, there were three cases of children with brain cancer in our community of 50,000. The usual suspects went totally nuts looking for the "cause" that they were sure was there. They needed someone or something to blame. My otherwise sensible wife was one of the believers. They made so much of an issue of it that the state health department finally was forced to do a study. Their conclusion? Statistics. There was no identifiable cause, other than the fact that there is some small statistical chance that in a community of 50,000 people, three children would get brain cancer.

My wife remains unconvinced to this day. She likes to find reasons for things. I love her anyway.

tim maguire said...

All bottom feeders are full of nasty stuff and should be eaten in limited quantities. And probably not inhaled at all.

Yancey Ward said...

"All bottom feeders are full of nasty stuff and should be eaten in limited quantities. And probably not inhaled at all."

Probably why ScotiaBank Arena was so empty.

Ann Althouse said...

"What kind of person--any kind, not just artists--thinks a dentist's drill is the right way to grind up shells into enough powder for a sculpture?"

Maybe if you glued the shells into the rough shape you wanted, you might then use a drill to carve the details. But then you'd be making dust from the glue. I wouldn't want to inhale that.

Robert Cook said...

"People like to find causes for things...My wife remains unconvinced to this day. She likes to find reasons for things."

Isn't this the reason for all religious beliefs?

Howard said...

You would think bottom feeders are more toxic but the benthic predators are the worst because bioaccumulation maths. Also toxicologists not docs set safety limits.

The math of mass indicates the shell dust itself is the most important toxin

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Robert Cook said...

Isn't this the reason for all religious beliefs?

Nope. It is the reason for every other religion's religious beliefs. My religion's religious beliefs come direct from God.

Howard said...

Home Depot sells excellent half face respirators. Also nitrile gloves. I've had too many toxic waste colleagues die of cancer from a cavalier attitude towards PPE

Howard said...

IIB make good point. Since there's infinitely number of God's, everyone is atheist... Do the math

Tina848 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sigivald said...

The naturalistic fallacy* is ... dangerous.

Also, sweet Jesus, I wouldn't grind and cut shells like that without probably an N99 mask, because dust inhalation is awful for your lungs even without heavy metal contamination.

(* There are several, but the one in play here is "natural means good or healthy", which is transparently false on the slightest reflection, and thus regularly believed wholeheartedly.)

Jupiter said...

"She saw a litany of specialists in neurological health and psychiatrists who prescribed antipsychotics and antidepressants, but nothing seemed to help."

Note that psychiatrists will prescribe powerful drugs for anyone who walks in the door.

MadisonMan said...

Because art is all that lasts.

Are the pyramids art? Or the Great Wall of China?

gilbar said...

Adam was a real person. The genealogy of Jesus traces through him in Luke
as Jupiter (or, as i like to call him: Zeus) reminded me yesterday
According to Robert Graves (who was a Poet!), those hebrew men that lived for hundreds of years make MUCH MORE SENSE as dynasties not individual people.

Kirk Parker said...

mockturtle,

I guess it's time for this fine, vintage, all-natural XKCD comic to make another appearance.


All,

I made the same mistake at first, before I read the article and looked at the photo. It's clear from it that she's not grinding up the shells and them making the sculptures from some kind of composite with the dust--as if it were plaster of paris or something. There are plenty of mostly-intact shells in the photo and I presume she's just doing some grinding to get things to fit, etc.

Now, an ordinary person might use a Dremel tool for this, but being an artist she needs something more notable like a dentist's drill?

JCA1 said...

I've never understood "all natural" as somehow indicative of "good for you." You know what else is "all natural?" A king cobra. Still wouldn't recommend playing with one.

Tom T. said...

"my cats gave me chronic indigestion for over 10 years...."

Ralph, you're not supposed to eat them.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

She saw a litany of specialists in neurological health and psychiatrists who prescribed antipsychotics and antidepressants, but nothing seemed to help.

On the one hand, given the symptoms, why did they not immediately test her blood for heavy metals?

On the other hand, given what we know about her, it is entirely possible that psychiatric issues were the more pressing concerns.

Ralph L said...

Ralph, you're not supposed to eat them

I snorted them.

gilbar said...

Kirk Parker said...
Now, an ordinary person might use a Dremel tool for this, but being an artist she needs something more notable like a dentist's drill?

another possibility is that she IS using s Dremel tool; and either she, or the reporter, is too stupid to know what to call it

*or, is too stupid not to think that she needs to call it a denist's drill for her audience?

Christy said...

For some period of time, a booming business out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama was the export of mussel shells to Asia/ The South Pacific. Bits of shells were used to seed oysters for cultured pearl farms. These days plastic bits are used. The health data on the workers breaking up the shells would be of interest.

Robert Cook said...

"Are the pyramids art? Or the Great Wall of China?"

In their way, yes. Certainly, they're great architectural and engineering achievements, which are considered art even today. They are humankind's handiworks. (This doesn't mean they didn't serve practical purposes when they were built.)

n.n said...

In quantity, and density... The toxicity of water, air, and fire.

Tom said...

Asbestos and arsenic are naturally occurring. So are alligators and volcanos. Natural stuff can kill us.

cubanbob said...

Robert Cook said...
"Why are artist more important than anyone else?"

Because art is all that lasts. Humankind's notes to eternity."

That's a pretty broad canvas you're painting. Why next you will be telling us a bullshit artist's art are notes to eternity.

Robin Goodfellow said...

ALSO: What sort of doctors accept the idea of "natural materials" as a good enough answer? There are many toxins and allergens in nature!

True enough: cyanide and arsenic are both natural.

Rabel said...

Yancey Ward said:
"I don't believe a single word of this story, not a single one."

Ditto

Ingachuck'stoothlessARM said...

"Dose Makes Poison" as the adage goes--

keep that in mind as you expose* yourself to ditzy artists

*no jokes please, unless u r Laslo

David-2 said...

If she lived in California those shells would have come properly labelled. https://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65