Art with Purpose: Toxic Sludge Edition

The ENN blog has highlighted many artists who use a range of mediums to address environmental issues.  Some make sculptures that help reefs grow at the bottom of the sea, some build architectural structures that purify the air, while others use graffiti to express their political and environmental opinions. John Sabraw, a professor at Ohio University, is a green art innovator whose focus on sustainable practices has led him to using some unique materials.

John Sabraw practices sustainability in his art in multiple ways. Instead of painting on canvas he uses aluminum with plastic core in organically grown bamboo frames. Sabraw also leans towards water based paints and formaldehyde free top coats. His paintings are also lighter in weight then typical paintings of similar size, which makes them easier to ship, as well as reducing the carbon footprint required to ship them. On top of all these measures, Sabraw likes to estimate the C02 emissions required to create his paintings and then buy carbon offsets to neutralize them (Sabraw has also bought offsets for DaVinci’s Mona Lisa).

Sabraw has created a website called Green World Art to help other artists who are interested in thinking sustainably while creating their artwork.

Lately he has been working with environmental engineer Guy Riefler to make paints from toxic sludge. The sludge comes from old coal mines that had released metallic runoff into the Ohio River prior to 1977. By separating the sludge from the water, then oxidizing it, Riefler and Sabraw are able to create a range of pigments including red, orange, yellow, brown, and black. The iron oxide is then mixed with acrylic polymers and resins to create the paint.

Sabraw has used the paints in his series “Chroma” and “Luminoius”. I especially like the “Chroma” paintings because of the complex painting techniques that make the paintings look like gaseous planets slowly swirling their atmospheric gases.

By turning the sludge into paints, not only is John Sabraw using a sustainable process to create paint and making a political statement, but he is also removing the toxic sludge from the natural environment. Sabraw’s artwork demonstrates that art can be beautiful while still being sustainable. Hopefully he will continue to be innovative and will influence other artists to experiment with sustainable practices.

Artist’s Brush via Shutterstock

Runoff via Shutterstock

by Maddie Perlman-Gabel

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