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John Sabraw painting with pigments made from toxic river sludge (courtesy John Sabraw)

Underground mining in Ohio dates back to the early 19th century, and thanks to acid runoff, the hundreds of now abandoned coal mines are a poison to the state’s waterways and ecology. To experiment with an alternative method for remediation, a scientist and an artist are collaborating on turning this toxic sludge into pigments.

“I was struck by the local streams that are largely orange, red, and brown, as if a mud slide was happening further upstream,” said artist John Sabraw, whose paintings incorporating the pigments are currently on view at Chicago’s McCormick Gallery. He explained to Hyperallergic how he encountered southern Ohio’s polluted rivers after moving to the state several years ago.

John Sabraw, “Axioma VII” (2015), mixed media on wood panel, 12 x 12 inches (courtesy McCormick Gallery) (click to enlarge)

“I found out that these colors were mainly from iron oxide, the same raw materials used to make many paint colors, but this iron oxide was from polluted water from abandoned coal mines. I thought it would be fantastic to use this toxic flow to make paintings rather than with imported iron oxide from China.”

As it happened, Sabraw discovered that environmental engineer Guy Riefler, a fellow Ohio University professor, was already working on creating paint from the hazardous waste, so they joined forces. You can see the process in detail in a short documentary by Jacob Koestler, but in essence, the team takes samples from the most polluted areas, neutralizes the pH, then separates the concentrated iron from the clean water. As Kalliopi Monoyios reported for Scientific American last month, one goal of the project is to see if there’s a way that remediation could pay for itself through a sustainable product. Iron oxide pigments include familiar names like ochre, sienna, and umber, whose use dates back tens of thousands of years. In theory, production of pigments from the toxic sludge on a large scale could be marketable and support the removal of the pollutants as its own industry.

Samples of the pigments made from toxic river sludge (courtesy John Sabraw)

Collecting polluted water for pigment making (courtesy John Sabraw)

Sabraw has been incorporating the pigments into his art for a few years, and the new work at McCormick focuses on macro views of leaves in early decay and other patterns of nature. He notes the Wabi-sabi Japanese Buddhist worldview, centered on finding beauty in imperfection, as a parallel to the history of toxic pigments present in his vibrantly colored art.

“I collaborate with many scientists and artists in widely differing fields, and I have come to the conclusion that scientists and artists share two critical aspects: curiosity and failure,” he said. “We are endlessly curious, try new things, and fail often. But that failure does not dampen our curiosity. So the artist, like the scientist, has a crucial role to perform in our society: see things differently, act on this vision, report the failures and successes.” He added that he’s currently in touch with chemists around to world about other extracted pollutants with the potential to be pigments, such as harmful algae and biotoxins. Transforming the heavy metals of the vivid orange sludge from Ohio’s abandoned coal mines could be an instigator for considering how to tackle pollution through the creation of something unexpected.

John Sabraw painting with pigments made from toxic river sludge (courtesy John Sabraw)

John Sabraw painting with pigments made from toxic river sludge (courtesy John Sabraw)

John Sabraw, “Axioma I” (2015), mixed media on wood panel, 12 x 12 inches (courtesy McCormick Gallery)

John Sabraw, “Bijagos” (2015), oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches (courtesy McCormick Gallery)

John Sabraw: Resonance continues at McCormick Gallery (835 West Washington Boulevard, Chicago) through April 25. 

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Allison Meier

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3 replies on “Painting with Toxic Sludge”

  1. Is it “purified” in anyway? I would be concerned about inhaling toxic fumes, etc. while painting.

    1. Once the pH is neutralized, what is separated out (the iron oxide) would in theory only be as hazardous as any other iron oxide pigment. A complete demonstration of the process is in their doc:

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