John Sabraw’s Toxic Art offers a sustainable solution for Ohio’s polluted streams

Artist and environmentalist John Sabraw is known for his “Toxic Art” – a colourful series of paintings using paints whose pigments contain iron oxide, extracted during the process of remediating polluted streams.

Now the artist is aiming to return southeastern Ohio’s streams to the “picture of health, by producing the sustainable pigment paint on a commercial scale, the sales of which would would help fund the remediation of toxic runoff in Ohio.

The artist and professor has joined forces with colleague, Guy Riefler, an environmental engineer and fellow professor at Ohio University, to extract toxic acid mine drainage (AMD) from polluted streams in Ohio and turn it into paint pigment.

To make the pigment, John Sabraw and Guy Riefler intercept the AMD before it gets to the stream. They take the water back to the lab, neutralise it with sodium hydroxide or another base, then bubble oxygen through the water, causing the iron oxide to crystalise and fall to the bottom. The clean water is then returned to the stream.

The iron oxide is blended with acrylic polymers and resins to make acrylic paint and with drying oils to make oil paint. Colours range in hues from yellow to brown to red to black, which are achieved by firing the pigment at different temperatures – up to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit – in a kiln at Ohio University’s ceramics studio.

John Sabraw and Guy Riefler are building a pilot facility that will not only demonstrate their process, but will also serve as an educational installation. By producing the pigment on a commercial scale, they believe their closed-loop solution will provide the state of Ohio a great service: restoring polluted streams from their own clean-up. The project will create eco job opportunities and can serve as a model for future environmental clean-up solutions.

John Sabraw’s artistic creations address issues of environmental sustainability. Through his circular paintings captured on aluminium and canvas, John Sabraw tells the story of the pigments themselves.

He said: “I make paintings that express the sublimity of nature but also the fragility of our relationship with it. All of my paintings use these toxic pigments in combination with standard artist colours.

“Art is the mechanism through which I explore the fundamental metaphysical dilemmas we face as a conscious species. No medium or mode is unconsidered when attacking this pursuit. I look for idiosyncratic connections between things, the compression of time and distance, the glory of our universe, and natural and cosmological processes.

“An activist and environmentalist, my paintings, drawings and collaborative installations are produced in an eco-conscious manner, and I continually work toward a fully sustainable practice.”

Environmental issues, according to the artist, cross all boundaries. John Sabraw explained: “Whether you’re dealing with mass extinction, climate destabilisation, human rights issues such as slave trade, or anything else, almost all can be tied back to sustainability, the environment and the sharing or lack of sharing of natural resources.”

John Sabraw

Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief @rosamedea

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