Aldona Bird, Contributors, Latest News

Recent art project has unexpected consequences

Just when I especially needed to stay healthy during the busy holiday season, a bad rash afflicted me. Ugly, raised, itchy persistent spots appeared by my right ear and quickly spread down my neck. Other patches came and went around my body.

I was at a loss to explain it. After a few days, I noticed bumps on the transient patches on my finger looked and felt like poison ivy.

I came up with a theory; there must have been poison ivy on the firewood I’d been handling. I’d had systemic poison ivy before, and figured this must be a bad flare-up after mild exposure.

About a week later, my face swelled. With ice and herbs I got the swelling down a little during the day (Benadryl didn’t help at all), but it kept getting worse overnight for about four days.

I wondered if this was connected to the poison ivy, or if it could have been a spider bite. My theories flip-flopped about this new terrible affliction.

When my face swelling abated, I thought I was healed. I resumed holiday activities I’d postponed while not feeling great.

One activity I picked back up was the Japanese Kintsugi I wrote about last week. This process uses urushi — sap from the Japanese lacquer tree — to bond together broken pieces of pottery.

This tree has several common names. Its botanical name is toxicodendron vernicifluum. If you are versed in plant classification you may recognize this one — it is the genus of many familiar plants, such as cashews, mangos, poison sumac, poison oak, and … poison ivy.

At the first of this project’s many steps I wore gloves — heeding the warning in the instructions that some people have an allergic reaction to the ingredients. The warning did not specify what type of reaction to expect.

The gloves were cumbersome. I ended up smearing lacquer (mixed with flour for the initial piecing step) all over the mugs. Once it dried, I had the difficult task of scraping and sanding it off.

A little bit of the mix got on my skin. When I had no immediate reaction, I figured I wasn’t allergic. The next time I worked on the mugs, I skipped the gloves — it was so much easier.

When a few hours later my neck started itching, I didn’t make the connection — especially as I didn’t remember touching my neck.

I connected the dots when I returned to work on the project. While handling the materials I scratched my face just under my eye and it immediately started to hurt — and I remembered the warning. I quickly finished up, washed hands and face and looked up what urushi lacquer is made from.

At first I wasn’t sure if the face swelling was connected to the rash, as I hadn’t worked with the urushi immediately before that started.

But when I again woke up with swelling (luckily mild this time) the next day, I knew for sure.

Apparently, some people are so allergic that even when in the same room with raw urushi, their faces swell up.

My face has resumed its usual size and shape, and the rashes are healing.

I have learned my lesson and in the future will show more respect for dangers lurking in arts and crafts.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She uses experience gained working on organic farms in Europe to help her explore possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Email