Artist & Engineer Team Up to Create Paints Made Out of Environmental Toxins (Video)

Video screen capture. Great Big Story

When we think of art, we usually think of art as beauty being created from beautiful things. What we might not associate art and beauty with are materials that pollute our environment. Yet, that's exactly what artist John Sabraw and civil engineer and Ohio State University professor Guy Riefler are doing, as they harvest toxins from Ohio's rivers, which have been polluted by mining activities, in order to create limited editions paints that they sell to artists. Watch how they do it in this segment from Great Big Story:

As the video shows, the problem is immense across the Rust Belt: abandoned and improperly sealed coal mines that leach heavy metals and other toxins into rivers and streams. The process is called acid mine drainage and in Ohio alone, over 1,300 miles of waterways have been affected. Some of the mines that affect the rivers have already been closed for a hundred years.

But that's where science comes in and merges with art's creative approach. In researching how to remediate southeastern Ohio's rivers, Riefler discoered that iron harvested from these poisoned rivers can be converted into a dry, powdery pigment. Or in Rielfer's science-speak:

You just neutralize the water with the addition of a base to adjust the pH, and then oxidize the water. The ferrous iron converts to ferric iron and precipitates out.

In trying to find out what to do with this dry pigment, Riefler realized it could be turned into a paint that could be sold in order to raise funds for further cleanup efforts. Riefler then turned to fellow Ohio State University art professor and artist Sabraw for help, as the engineer wasn't exactly sure how to transform this raw material into an actual saleable product that artists would want to purchase.

The process of transforming these dry pigments into paints has Sabraw mixing adding oil dispersant and dry pigment on a tempered glass table. This results in an emollient, paint-like pigment that "wants to stick to things and wants to be a good paint." That 'new' paint can be then scraped up into jars and sold as batches.

Sabraw's expertise mixed with Riefler's scientific know-how has resulted in a beautiful product that some paint companies are now interested in selling. But things have come full circle -- from a state of terrible environmental degradation, comes the possibility that those very toxins causing the problem will become part of the solution itself, something that could happen very quickly, rather than waiting for laws or social attitudes to change, says Sabraw:

The proceeds from selling the pigment will pay for the plant, it will pay for the employees and it will pay for the cleanup of a stream. The moment that the plant becomes viable is the moment that the stream goes back to biological viability. It's not a 10-year thing, it's not a 20-year thing, it's not a 50-year thing, it's a tomorrow kind of thing.

There's an amazing and inspiring example of what is possible here when we combine scientific pragmatism with creativity. In producing these remarkable custom paints from polluted rivers, a blight from our physical environment (and our collective psyche) is being transmuted into something more transcendental. As Sabraw notes:

Artists are not people who create from themselves, but they actually serve a role as communicators for the divine in the universe. I'm always thinking about these colours and how they relate to where they came from.

Read more over at Ohio University.