Artists have long used odd things in their work - Marcel Duchamp's urinal on a pedestal comes to mind - but even when unusual ingredients are less obvious, they can be present. As my co-blogger Glendon Mellow points out in his superb Pinch of Pigment series, everything from raw earth minerals to ground up mummies has been used to achieve coveted colors in paints over the ages. So it may come as no surprise that an artist in Ohio is incorporating toxic river sludge into his paintings. Perhaps more fascinating is the process by which this sludge is being turned from undesireable waste to valuable art supplies. On the surface, it's enough to make you believe in alchemy.

According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources more than 3.6 billion tons of coal have been extracted from the state since 1800. This has killed life in some 1,300 miles of streams as runoff from abandoned mines makes its way into the waterways. The polluted streams aren't hard to find - the highly acidic water pulls heavy metals like iron out of the surrounding bedrock and turns the streams an arresting shade of orange as the iron oxidizes.

Truetown Stream

Stream in Southeastern Ohio contaminated by water from abandoned coal mines

Encouraged by well-established knowledge that stream reclamation could be accomplished by neutralizing the pH of the water and forcing the heavy metals to settle out, John Sabraw and Guy Riefler, both professors at Ohio University, were curious to know if the reclamation could pay for itself. So they embarked on an experiment to see whether the iron hydroxide that settled out of water they treated could be reliably turned into high quality pigments that might be subsequently incorporated into artists' oil and acrylic paints. The answer? Yes.

Truetown Iron Oxides

Pigments derived from the polluted waters of a stream in Southeastern Ohio

Natural and synthetic iron oxides have a long history as colorants because they are relatively inexpensive, non-toxic, and they occur in a wide range of colors - from pale yellows through rusty oranges, earthy reds and browns, to pure black. Artists (and the odd fan of the 1980s TV legend Bob Ross) might recognize the names of the ochers, siennas, and umbers that come from variations of this one type of pigment: iron oxide.

Sabraw has been experimenting with the pigments he and Riefler have extracted and his resulting paintings are as spectacular as the story behind them.

Sabraw working

Artist and Ohio University professor John Sabraw experimenting with pigments extracted from acid mine runoff.

Axioma I

Axioma I by John Sabraw

Cadence I

Cadence I by John Sabraw

These paintings and more will be the subject of a solo exhibition at the Thomas McCormick Gallery in Chicago, IL, opening next week:


A solo exhibition of new work from artist John Sabraw

March 6-April 25 2015

Thomas McCormick Gallery

835 West Washington Boulevard

Chicago, IL 60607

(312) 226-6800

Axioma VII

Axioma VII by John Sabraw

For those of you who won't be able to see the exhibit in person, check out Sabraw's website for images from the series. You might also enjoy this video explaining the project in more depth:

Hat tip to @Finchandpea for introducing me to Riefler and Sabraw's work via their writeup, "The Art of Science: Turning Pollution into Pigment"