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Applied Science: "By-product Becomes Product" at Intersection for the Arts

Christine Lee, A Product’s By-product, a By-product’s Product (detail of installation), scrap wood and adhesive-free sawdust composite boards, 2011

Stop for a second, and think about the number of toxins you touch, breathe, even taste in one day. Then think about what that means for those whose jobs bring them in constant, enduring contact of those materials for a living. Intersection of the Art's latest cross-disciplinary project "By-product Becomes Product" examines the role and effect of hazardous materials specifically in the artist's studio.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory (the country’s leading wood research institute) and research engineer John F. Hunt bring a scientific perspective to the working method of six artists (Christine Lee, Russell Baldon, Julia Goodman, Barbara Holmes, Scott Oliver, and Imin Yeh) who use wood as their primary medium.

Lead artist Christine Lee, influenced by resource conservation and the role of recycling in contemporary art, started thinking about the potential of discarded material when she was a Resident Artist at the University of Wisconsin. Aware of the health effects of working with commonly available composite wood panels such as MDF, particle board, and certain plywoods (formaldehyde resins and glues are often used to bind together plywood and MDF and emit volatile organic compounds), she sought to find different materials that would foster a healthier creative practice for herself and other artists (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classified urea-formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen back in the '80s). Her goal: to find ways of working with composite wood boards that are free of toxic adhesives and binders.


Lee started collecting sawdust, a typically discarded by-product, which she tested with research engineer John F. Hunt. They experimented with forming processes to create composite boards with similar properties to MDF, but lacking one key component—this new material was free of formaldehyde-based resins and other toxic adhesives and was biodegradable and recyclable, to boot. Mission accomplished.

In 2010, the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act—a law to regulate formaldehyde omissions—was passed by Congress and President Obama, making this exhibit both timely and relevant and illustrative of Intersection's commitment to work and ideas that effect positive change through scientific application.  

Opening reception: 7–9 p.m., Wed. 2/6 at Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission St., theintersection.org // Exhibit through Sat. 3/30