Finding "meaning" in the paintings of John Sabraw requires simply looking at them. For the works hanging in the Hydro-Logic exhibit, the Ohio University art professor and longtime environmentalist used paint made from pigments derived from Ohio River pollution. Specifically, from pollution caused by leaking coal mines like the one that turned the Animas River bright orange last year in Durango. Along with Ohio University engineer Dr. Guy Riesler, Sabraw has developed a way to derive beauty from disaster and bring life back to its source.
Indy: How did you come to make pigment from pollution?
John Sabraw: There's a long tradition of pigments that artists use to make paint, and that are used for other commercial coloring processes, being based in iron oxide. Iron oxide is one of the main pollutants we have left over from coal mining. When the mines are not sealed properly, and they fill up with water, the water leaches chemicals into the walls or other areas inside the mine, generating heavy metals like sulfuric acid.
When the water exits the mine, it's crystal clear. But if you look ahead about 12 feet, or 20 or 30 feet depending on the stream, as it mixes with oxygen, it turns orange, red and yellow. That reduced iron is forming a crystalline structure and then it becomes iron oxide, which is visible, and it falls to the bottom of the stream.
You're really talking about almost all biological life being killed by this. And you experienced this recently in Colorado.
When I got to Ohio University, I was doing sustainability research and touring nearby river streams. I saw these colors and wondered, Hey, can I make paint out of that? And someone said, There's a guy who's trying to figure that out right now. This guy had already been researching for a long time whether you can you pull that iron oxide out of a living stream, and then return the water to the stream so that the stream could still be biologically viable.
And together you developed a solution?
We pump the water out of the mine, we change the acidity of it in a housing unit and that goes through an aeration process, meaning we drive oxygen into the mixture of the water. That water ends up in a settling tank, essentially a big tank. The water goes in one end and gets really calm and precipitates all of the pollutants to the bottom of the tank. What you're left with on the top of the tank is neutral, iron-free water that's biologically viable, and you return that to the stream.
And you're doing this now?
This Hydro-Logic show is ridiculously timely. We've worked through lots of fits and starts since 2010 as a partnership. We've had a lot of success this past year; a lot of grad students have helped us out with very specific chemistry. We just got notice last week that we have been approved to push our initial proposal forward for a large grant, and we have another supporter to match the grant. We could end up with $100,000 to build a full-scale pilot plant on the stream bed.
Is this something you can scale at some point?
That's one of the end goals. The first is to show that we can do this process using minimal to zero input from the grid. The second is we want to prove this process creates a really consistent, high-quality pigment that can be sold on the market. Basically, we buy our pigment from China right now, and they do a very terrible environmental process. Out of just one of the thousands of sites in Ohio itself — forget about the rest of the world where all of these coal mining problems exist — just one of our streams that we'd like to tap into, we figure we can produce over a ton of pigment every single day.
So back to your question, yes, that is our end goal. That anyone who has this contamination issue anywhere on the planet, you can take our information and you can keep streams biologically viable anywhere in the world right now.
I haven't even asked about your art. Given this project, how would you describe where you are at this point in your life with your art?
When I was a kid, like three years old, I had this thing where my eyes were really messed up. I was born with this bizarre thing where my eye muscles were too long. I had eye surgery when I was 18 months old and have worn glasses ever since. And I've had this weird vision of the world. I could see stars really well — it was almost like I had two telescopes on my face. I could see aphids on leaves. ... I always had this sensibility that I had this vision and was supposed to find things that other people couldn't see. And I've always been a collector: plants, animals, antiques. I sensed they revealed a secret history to me. My paintings for most of my adult life have been about sharing that with the world.