Magazine article Earth Island Journal

Remediation Art

Magazine article Earth Island Journal

Remediation Art

Article excerpt

Remember how a massive wastewater spill from an abandoned coal mine in Colorado turned the Animas River bright ochre for several months back in August 2015? That slick, yellow layer floating atop the water was caused by dissolved iron in the heavy-metal laden runoff that oxidized when exposed to air.

Most of us wouldn't associate this glaring, visual proof of pollution with art, but as John Sabraw says, artists "see things differently." An artist and self-described environmentalist, Sabraw uses toxic runoff found in water bodies in the Ohio River region to create pigments for his paintings.

The idea came to him nearly a decade ago while touring southern Ohio, a region that has hundreds of abandoned subsurface coal mines. Sabraw, who teaches art at Ohio University, noticed many of the streams near these mines were running shades of red, brown, and yellow from acid mine drainage from coal mines--drainage that acidifies waterways and kills fish and other aquatic life. Once he found out that the colors were mainly from iron oxide--the same raw material used to make paint colors--Sabraw became interested in figuring out how to use the toxic flow to make art.

Turns out, technical help was right at hand. Guy Riefler, an environmental engineering professor at Ohio University, was already working on creating paints from acid mine drainage. A collaboration was clearly meant to be. The duo collected water from polluted streams and developed techniques for separating out the iron oxides and transforming those into pigments. …

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