A longtime children’s art teacher, Diana Mercer began
making her own line of art supplies -- Clementine Art -- as a safe and ecological
alternative to commercially available materials. Join me in learning about her reasons and her products.
***Note: Readers will have a chance to win a set of six Clementine Art paints at the end of this interview.***
Diana, I understand that you used to teach art to children. Can you tell
us about that? What was it like having an art studio for kids?
DIANA: I loved it with all of my heart. I started my teaching career in the kindergarten classroom and was lucky to teach in a small, progressive school that valued the development of the whole child; head, hand and heart. I was free to teach through play, and to weave all kinds of colorful, rich, and vibrant art and music experiences into our days. During this experience, I began to dig deeper into the idea of process art for children and I learned more about the philosophies of Bev Bos, MaryAnn Kohl, Rudolph Steiner and Reggio Emilia that encouraged children to explore, experiment, and express with beautiful, natural materials and lots of freedom.
I opened Clementine Studio in 2003 because it seemed clear to me that modern children weren’t getting enough time to ‘play around’ in an unstructured way with lovely art materials. Most of the artistic choices available on the retail shelves seemed skewed toward creativity-free and direction-heavy craft projects; choices that struck me as inauthentic and contrived. I wanted children to have a place for open-ended explorations that provided thoughtful support, interesting art materials, and a lovely environment.
Will you share a bit about your decision to create your own line of
ecological art materials?
DIANA: During a tot’s art class at Clementine Studio, my art space in Boulder, CO, a parent discovered that her toddler had placed a spring green paintbrush in her mouth, much like a lollipop. We both flinched as the paint smeared around her little girl’s lips, fully coating the inside of her mouth. Springing to action, we rinsed and wiped her daughter clean. This mother turned to me with a worried look and asked, “Is this really ok?”
“Our paint is non-toxic.” I replied with assurance. For more than 20 years as a teacher, I had understood that non-toxic is as good as it gets for children’s art supplies. The label ‘non-toxic’ means that a product is not related to any toxin or poison. I am confident that this means it will not kill anyone. For many years, The American National Standards Institute (ASTM) has been certifying that art supplies meet non-toxicity standard ASTM D-4236 and that any toxins will be clearly listed on the label.
The US Consumer Product Safety Commission has this to say: Parents and others buying art materials, school supplies and toys such as crayons, paint sets, or modeling clay should be alert and purchase only those products which are accompanied by the statement "Conforms to ASTM D-4236."
Like many people, I have lately become concerned about the environment and more aware of health issues as they relate to my food, cosmetics, and other consumer choices, I buy organics when I can, bring grocery bags to the store with me, and ride my bike instead of getting in the car so often.
After the paint-in-the-mouth incident, I felt besieged by unanswered questions about what children’s paint is made of. I wondered why the ingredients aren’t available to me on the label? The colors, odor, and seemingly infinite shelf life of children’s paint made me wonder what kind of chemicals, synthetic dyes, and preservatives were contained in my non-toxic bottle of paint.
As a consumer, I have been concerned by news that widely distributed toys from China were discovered to contain excess levels of lead paint; that children’s dough is reportedly made using a petroleum base; and that art materials contain synthetic dyes that have been linked to a wide variety of health issues in children including allergies, ADHD, and a variety of cancers. In fact, The Center for Science in the Public Interest just published a report entitled Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks urging the FDA to ban the use of artificial colors.
I love art, and children. As an art teacher, I want to provide children with
safer choices. On my short list, I’d like a product that is made with natural
ingredients that I can pronounce. I’d like to purchase them from a company that
is honest enough to list their ingredients right on the package. I want
art materials that are safe for children, and the environment.
Clementine Art was founded on the principle that we can do better for children. Clementine is committed to providing all natural, and non-toxic art supplies for children made from simple, and wholesome ingredients.
What was the process like in coming up with the recipes, creating them,
testing them… Did it take over your kitchen and your life?
DIANA: Oh my, yes. It did take over my life...in a good way. I felt a bit like a mad scientist, but the process was fun, challenging, and much harder than you might imagine. Natural colorants are notoriously unstable, so finding the right mix of stability, acidity, ph balance, texture, and natural preservative was interesting, and often surprising. One time, I made a big batch of lovely purple dough, and then went for a walk. By the time I had returned an hour later, the purple dough had turned into another color completely (sort of a pinkish grey...). The ph was wrong and it turned out that that particular color was very ph sensitive.
Did it take over my kitchen? Yes indeed! I am still scraping wax splatters off my cabinets, my measuring spoons have been donated to the Clementine cause since they are so coated in wax, and my car stubbornly smells of natural cranberry extract after I spilled an entire bottle in there. We have moved into a warehouse for research and development, and now have US based product manufacturers who are in charge of the messy work now, thank goodness.
Can you tell us about the ingredients in your own Clementine Art products versus what is in commercially available art supplies?
DIANA: All of Clementine’s products are made with all natural ingredients, no chemical dyes or colorants, and no petroleum products. We are the first company to list all of our ingredients right on the box so that you can see for yourself what’s in them. More specifically, our crayons are made with earth based, oxide mineral pigments which means they have been simply treated with heat to get their vibrant colors. The crayons and rocks are also made with soy and beeswax instead of paraffin wax, a petroleum product. Our paint contains pigment, water and vinegar as a gentle preservative, while who knows what’s in conventional paints? Our glue is a strong, clear craft glue made with wheat starch, and our markers are colored only with plant and vegetable dyes like elderberry, turmeric, and annatto. Our modeling dough is made with many of the ingredients found in freshly baked bread, and colored with spinach, turmeric and other natural colors. I’ve been trying to find out what’s in conventional dough for several years, with no luck. Here’s a link to our podcast on the subject.
If you could encourage parents to seek out an alternative to one
commercially available art material, what would it be and why?
DIANA: I would personally be most concerned about the product that spends the most time on the skin, like finger paints, modeling dough, and markers. Our skin is our largest organ and is used to both eliminate, and absorb, toxins and chemicals.
JEAN: What role does education (of parents/consumers/teachers) play in your mission?
DIANA: One of our most important goals is to encourage the development of creative families. I’ve seen a lot of parents who are hesitant to bring creative explorations into the home because they don’t feel creative themselves. I hope, through helpful articles, resources, and art ideas, to take some of the mystery out of art development and to introduce children and parents to an artistic life, well-lived.
Raising the issue of natural
ingredients is always an education – for ourselves and hopefully, for our
customers. We believe that the bar has been set too low for children’s art
products and the status quo is to simply accept what’s available. We’ve been
wondering, and we hope our parents will join us, why we don’t have more
information about what ingredients are in children’s art products. In the
meantime, Clementine will continue to provide clean, wholesome art products for
children with a level of transparency and honesty about our ingredients that is
JEAN: Anything else you’d like to add?
DIANA: I believe everyone is an artist...even if you don’t feel like you can draw a dog that looks like a dog... Realism is only one genre of expression. There are many ways to enjoy texture, color, shape, and design in a more abstract, free, and expressive way.
JEAN: Thanks so much for sharing, Diana! Hearing your story and what has led you to start Clementine Art and your line of child-friendly, eco-art products is a first step for many of us.
Visit Clementine Art to learn more about, or purchase, her art supplies. Diana also has a blog, darling clementine, where she shares fun, process-oriented art projects featuring clementine art products (such as these melted crayon monoprints or these summer paintsicles). You can also follow her on facebook.
Readers who leave a comment to this interview by Thursday, July 15th at 12 midnight EST will be entered in a random drawing to win this set of six tempera paints by Clementine Art. They are colored with Mayan mineral earth pigments and are free from chemical dyes and petrochemicals.
The random number picked #108 so Leslie wins the set of paints.
JUST starting art, these would be GREAT!!!
I just heard from Diana that she's willing to offer another set of the paints to a second winner!! The random number generator picked #2 this time, so Emma wins the second set.
what great products, I'd love to try these out with my kids - thanks for the giveaway!! :)