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John Sabraw Makes Vibrant Art from Pollution

Obsolete coalmines, scattered all over Ohio have brought to light a new function to the world of art. Artists, engineers, and other community members want to clean up the pollution left behind by these mines. With their help, artist John Sabraw saw an opportunity to turn the pollution from these coal mines into spellbinding pieces of art. The colorful pigments used in these unique pieces derive directly from the streams of coal mine pollution left behind for years. 

The Beginning 

Bubbling acid mine seep at Carbondale, Ohio red and orange is iron oxide deposits, green streaks are bacteria and algae.
John Sabraw says “The main focus of my research currently is working with a team of engineers and watershed experts to remediate streams polluted by acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines.”

As an art teacher, Sabraw began some work with an environmental group. After years of working with other groups and scientists, he, along with a group called Kanawha toured southeast Ohio. The pollution, an orange-red color, made many streams smelly and uninhabitable. This pollution is a heavy metal called iron oxide. 

The idea came to Sabraw, to toil with it in his studio because most paint products are made with the same heavy metal. Along with a colleague, Guy Riefler, Sabraw began the project of cleaning the Ohio streams. They wanted to turn the iron oxide pollution into something useful. 

Why This Project?

The project came about as more than an art project. Because there are so many abandoned coal mines in Ohio, the rain makes it easy for iron oxide to make its way to streams. This changes the pH of the water, making it nearly impossible for aquatic life to survive. Additionally, the heavy metal is activated by sunlight, so instead of dissolving, it crystalizes onto the creek beds, making it impossible for other life forms to survive. 

This project will save much wildlife that deserves to live in their natural habitat. Not only will this make a more habitable environment, but it will restore places for families to enjoy nature. The project includes future projections to turn these streams into parks and recreation centers for the community. 

One of the art pieces. Symbiotic Ecosystem Carbondale, 16 Steel Plates, Micro Biotic Acid Mine Drainage Residual, Acrylic Resin, Local Hardwoods, Stain, 2019

Processing the Pollution

Sabraw and Riefler, along with other volunteers visit streams along the Appalachian. Here, they collect the iron oxide and also collect it from the creek beds. They then wash it and purify it. Once this is done, they neutralize the acidity, turning it into a 98% pure iron oxide that contains almost 0 contaminants. Then, Sabraw begins his process of turning it into vividly colorful pigments to create his pieces of art. He lives by his quote: “More than anything else, artists want to know how they can do something similar, take the ability to think differently, spatially, and apply it to issues in our world.”

Inspirational Art

Originally an art teacher, Sabraw uses his pigments to create his series of art pieces. Mostly circular, they contain swirls of color that mimic life underwater. His inspiration comes from the polluted streams he has helped clean of pollution. He thinks of his art as a showcase of the happenings of the planet going on right now. Sabraw wants to create “a sense of wonder, openness and also mystery and a question of purpose.”

Sabraw plans to continue cleaning the streams of his native Ohio, and continue with his uniquely sustainable and interesting series of art. He wants to continue using pollution for a sense of good and inspire other artists to pursue similar activities.

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