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Metal sludge: Artist converts toxic runoff into paint

By Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter
Thursday, August 29, 2013, 3:07 PM

Iron runoff flows through Ohio's waterways, turning pockets of it yellow, orange and red as metals mix with rain water and oxidize.

This can be found in local streams across the globe, but in southern Ohio, it can be particularly noticeable. This portion of the U.S. is home to one of the largest concentrations coal burning plants on the planet -- and under the ground, there are countless de-commissioned coal mines.

When rainwater seeps into these taverns it becomes laden with metal compounds, which then flows into the rivers.

Several years ago, artist and Ohio University professor John Sabraw took note of this, and was inspired to put the toxic waste to use.

"I was struck by the local streams are largely orange, red and brown as if a mud slide was happening further upstream," he explains.

"... I found out that these colours 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. 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 collaborating."

Sabraw is a champion of sustainable art. In addition to using reclaimed materials to create his pigments, frames are made from locally sourced tulip, sassafras and sycamore deadfall, using minimal adhesives.

Sabraw calls his toxic sludge series Chroma.

"These abstract explorations focus on natural phenomena, the earth’s ecosystem as a whole, and our role within that," Sabraw says.

"This understanding has led me to incorporate ever more sustainable practices in my studio, in my life, and when possible actively engaging the public on the matter."

Sabraw's unique pigments are carefully layered in a painstaking process that can take months to complete.

Each painting is completely unique, the end result of letting the colours fall where they may.

Visit johnsabraw.com to see the complete series.

Images courtesy of John Sabraw

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