John Sabraw paints with 'lifeless but dazzlingly coloured' pollution

Born in England, artist John Sabraw was still known as a realist painter when he horrified his agent by producing Chroma, a series of circular abstract works. Made with pigments derived from the toxic run-off that pollutes the coal-mining region of Ohio (Sabraw is an art professor at Ohio University), the pieces underline the theme of environmental activism in Sabraw's work: he once devised a carbon-offset scheme for artists, which he applied to Leonardo's Mona Lisa. Sabraw and chemist Guy Rifler, his paint-making partner at Ohio University, have big plans for pollution-based pigments as a means to clean up industrial sites.

What inspired the idea of making paint from pollution?
JS: Ohio has over 4,000 abandoned mines leaking lifeless but dazzlingly coloured mineral streams. I was struck by the amazing colours and wondered if I could work with them. I quickly discovered that environmental engineer Guy Riefler was already using the run-off to make paint, and he asked me to join him.

Is making the paint a simple process?
JS: It's easy – but making a viable, consistent and stable pigment is hard. We start with containers of polluted water, which vary enormously from site to site. We consulted a paint manufacturer in order to achieve a finer grind and the right pH balance to mix with linseed oil or acrylic compounds. 

How do you make the Chroma works using these pigments?
JS: I lay a sheet of aluminium flat, draw a circle and apply lots of water-based pigment to it, creating a large bubble on the surface. Then I wait for it to dry. It takes weeks and weeks. A piece measuring about a metre across has around a gallon [3.79 litres] of water on it, with surface tension holding it in place.

How many of these pieces have you made?
JS: There are lots of failures. I've made 30 to 40 successful ones, and the process is evolving and becoming crazier. I am now working on a bigger scale, almost 2 m in width, and I'm doing an experimental piece that's over 3 m wide. The larger the scale the less control, and the more an ecology-like complexity emerges.

Where do you see the Chroma project heading?
JS: We've just submitted a US$750,000 proposal to make a pilot plant. We want the paint-making process to be commercially viable, and initially we're looking for funding from the university, the state or coal companies. The same process could be used for other polluted sites. It's an exportable technology that could clean up an area in a generation.

Are you involving other artists?
JS: I'm making a large batch of acrylics and oils from the heavily polluted Oreton site. Later, I'll send tubes to artists around the world. Their works will form a future exhibition.

They look quite earthlike, but what do your Chroma works really represent?JS: Actually, the initial idea was to find an organic way of representing tree rings. These days I begin each work with an idea of something like algae.

Is art important in tackling environmental issues?
JS: The science is compelling to those who can process it, but art can connect with people on a more basic, emotional level. It raises awareness and involvement.

How can artists and scientists work together effectively?
JS: I've worked with astrophysicists before and now with Guy, and I really like collaborating with scientists. These days, everything is so specialized that there is little discussion among disciplines. But artists and scientists communicated closely in the past. Often, they were the same people. There is a commonality. 

Toxic Art documentary shot and edited by Jacob Koestler, about John Sabraw's series of paintings and collaborations with South-Eastern Ohio researches and engineers.

This article first debuted in Frame #108 alongside many other novelty projects. Find your copy in the online Frame store.

Photos Louise O'Rourke

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