Tower Hill exhibit transforms pollutants to stunning works of art

An example of John Sabraw’s work.

John Sabraw’s exhibit “Renewal” is currently on display at Tower Hill Botanic Garden. Sabraw, an artist, environmental activist and Professor of Art at Ohio University, creates colorful and highly textured paintings celebrating connectivity to nature by examining chroma and structure in micro-macro relationships. These works of art utilize pigments generated by remediating streams polluted with coalmine runoff called acid mine drainage.

Here are a few answers Sabraw provided about his work.

What motivated you to turn toxic sludge into pigments?
When I moved to Ohio, I was in a sustainability immersion group called “Kanawha.” As we toured southeastern Ohio, I was struck by local streams that are not only devoid of aquatic life, but are orange, red and brown – as if from a mud slide upstream. The colors were mainly from
iron oxide – the same raw material used to make many paint colors. Seepage from abandoned coal mines had caused the water pollution.

I thought it would be fantastic to use this toxic flow to make paintings rather than with imported iron oxide. It turned out that environmental engineer and fellow Ohio University professor Guy Riefler had already been working to create viable paint from this toxic sludge; so we began

Where do you find the pigments?
We find them near the Ohio River in the southeastern part of the state, which has the largest concentration of coal burning power plants in the world. Scattered over thousands of square miles are innumerable abandoned underground coal mines. Rainwater seeps into these caverns and becomes contaminated with toxic levels of heavy metals. This water then flows out into streams and rivers, turning them yellow, orange and red as the metals oxidize.

Some of the seeps we work with release over one million gallons of polluted water per day. This water can have a final pH below 2 and carry over 2,000 pounds of iron. It is like junking a car in the stream every single day.

How do you turn the pigments into paint?
The idea is that we intercept the toxic acid mine drainage before it gets to the stream, neutralize the acidity, extract the iron oxide and release the clean water back into the stream. When it initially comes out of the mine seep the toxic drainage is actually clear, but it contains
dissolved iron oxide that can be extracted to make pigment. After taking the water back to the lab, we neutralize it with sodium hydroxide or another base. Then we bubble oxygen through the water, which causes the iron oxide to crystalize and fall to the bottom. The clean water can then be returned to the stream.

When iron oxide separates from water, it’s a muddy sludge that we can dry and grind into a useful pigment. We collect this and blend it with acrylic polymers and resins to make acrylic paint and with drying oils to make oil paint. Colors range in hues from yellow to brown to red to black, which are achieved by firing the pigment at different temperatures – up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit – in a kiln at Ohio University’s ceramics studio.

John Sabraw by Frameweb dot com.

What is an artist’s role in environmental activism and education?
Via painting, social sculpture, performance art, activist art and more, an artist can challenge complacency, open minds and motivate action. Art can be an effective method of education and activism.

Most of the conflict, injustice, and devastation in the world can be traced back to supply and demand related to abuse of natural resources. Artists should use whatever is in their power to push for greater responsibility, positive change and sustainability. In addition, collaborating with activists and organizations has the potential to activate those who are apathetic.

Will the pigments be sold commercially? What do you hope this accomplishes?
We’re working on producing the pigment on a commercial scale. We’re also building a pilot facility that will not only demonstrate the process on a small scale, but will also serve as an immersive, educational installation.

Our plan is to encourage manufacturers to replace imported pigment with our AMD pigments. Our hope is that state agencies will use the products from manufacturers that use our pigment exclusively, as its creation will be doing the state and citizens a great service. Revenue from sales of the pigment will fund the continued remediation of the polluted streams. The day a stream’s remediation begins is the day it starts going back to health versus remaining an aquatic dead zone.

With this creative solution to an environmental issue, we will achieve several things. In creating a viable product from contamination, our process provides a closed loop. We’ve made it possible to restore the streams from their own clean-up. By implementing renewable energy sources in the process, it should emit only very small amounts of greenhouse gases; no other sources of pollution will be made. In addition, this project will employ more people doing good for the environment and can serve as a model for future environmental clean-up solutions.