A common side effect of the mining industry, iron oxide runoff has been impacting Ohio’s waterways for generations. Now, a group of artists and scientists in the state are removing this contaminant from a section of Sunday Creek and using it as an ingredient in paint pigment — and a new documentary short shares their inspiring story.

“In Southeast Ohio, acid mine drainage is a common pollutant in our streams,” said Guy Riefler, professor and chair of Civil Engineering at Ohio University, in the documentary Toxic Art (2023), directed by Jason Whalen. “You can still run into children who, you tell them to draw a stream, and they reach for an orange crayon.”

This colorfully demonstrates something that is generally known about extractive mining practices like acid mine drainage (AMD) — that its impact on the environment is significant and lasting. Working in tandem with Riefler, artist and environmentalist John Sabraw and a group of volunteers and students have developed a process that converts iron oxide waste into pigment for oil paints.

“With little funding and lots of skeptics, we’ve been refining a process that can continuously treat acid mine drainage, restore a stream for aquatic life, and collect sustainably sourced iron pigment that can be sold offsetting operational costs,” Sabraw told Hyperallergic. “Based on our best estimates, we should be able to create jobs and produce a small profit, while eliminating a perpetual pollution source.”

Sabraw works with students and other volunteers to sift iron oxide from acid mine runoff to create pigment elements.

As documented by the environmentalist organization Rivers are Life, Sabraw became aware of Ohio’s problems with AMD in the area surrounding the university, especially Sunday Creek, which flows for approximately 20 miles through the Appalachian foothills and receives 2,183,065 pounds of iron oxide dump each year, according to the group. In addition to the stream running orange, habitat and wildlife degradation is pronounced, especially along the seven-mile stretch that runs downstream from the abandoned Truetown mineshaft.

Sabraw spent the early years of his art career making realist oil paintings of still lives, figures, and landscapes. “I was seeking meaning and purpose, sure that there was a secret plan hidden in the discarded objects, isolated bodies, and just past the horizon in the vistas I painted,” he said.

“But the political landscape of the early 21st century, coupled with very real impacts from climate change, shattered my belief that something else held the answers — instead I realized that we were the only ones who could change our fate,” Sabraw added.

Research was a trial-and-error process spanning six years before Sabraw and Riefler found a workable formulation for the iron oxide runoff.
Many of Ohio’s rivers run orange, due to AMD damage, which kills wildlife and destroys habitats.

During his time at Northwestern University, where he pursued his MFA, Sabraw worked at an art supply store called Goods of Evanston, where he met Robert Gamblin of Gamblin Artist Colors. The company now uses about 36 grams of the iron oxide pigment reclaimed from Sunday Creek to produce one tube of oil paint in hues such as orange yellow, orange, orange red, deep red, and violet. What began as a proof-of-concept exercise that stretched out over six years and withstood much skepticism is now a functioning facility that received private support before recently getting the six-figure state funding necessary to turn their hopeful dream into a tangible reality.

“Our treatment process will intercept 100% of Truetown pollution and remove over 6,000 lbs of iron every single day,” said Sabraw. “So each day, we could theoretically produce 75,000 tubes of paint, but this would exceed the artist color market considerably.”

Back in the studio, Sabraw returns to art as a means of carrying the message of localized action that can make a difference.

Most of the rest of the so-called True Pigment will likely be sold to industries such as coating, concrete colorants, ceramic, and brick manufacturers. In support of the project, and to raise awareness through art, Sabraw makes “Toxic Art” prints that utilize the salvage-based pigments, threading art as the means to an even greater end.

“If all manner of people from all manner of professions and experiences and cultures felt that they, too, could contribute, then maybe apathy can be abated enough to coalesce action by the masses and reprioritize our leaders’ efforts,” Sabraw said.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....

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