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Filtering suspended iron oxide from stream catch of iron and acid mine drainage in Sulfur Springs Hollow, Ohio

John Sabraw's studio (work in progress)

The same iron oxide pigment from Sulfur Springs Hollow fired different degrees Celsius

Chroma S5 Hudson River, 36x36 inches, Hudson Valley Brick dust, 24k gold leaf, acrylic resin, acrylic paint with AMD iron oxides on aluminum composite panel, 2019

Detail view of Chroma S5 Hudson River

Polar Croma Galaxy, Mixed Media, on Honeycomb Aluminum Panel, 36x36 inches, 2021

Polar Chroma Sickle, Mixed Media on Wood Panel, 30x30 inches, 2021


To see more of John Sabraw's art work and environmental projects please visit

John Sabraw was born in Lakenheath, England. As an activist and environmentalist, Sabraw’s paintings, drawings, and collaborative installations are produced in an eco-conscious manner, and he continually works toward a fully sustainable practice. He collaborates with scientists on many projects, and one of his current collaborations involves creating paint and paintings from iron oxide extracted in the process of remediating polluted streams. 

Sabraw’s art is in numerous collections including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Honolulu, the Elmhurst Museum in Illinois, Emprise Bank, and Accenture Corp. Sabraw is represented in Chicago by Thomas McCormick. Sabraw is a Professor of Art at Ohio University where he is Chair of the Painting + Drawing program, and Board Advisor at Scribble Art Workshop in New York. He has most recently been featured in TED, Smithsonian, New Scientist, and Great Big Story.  


PETRICHOR 6, 8X8 inches, laser etched Maple Burl, CNC Routed Coal Dust and sculpting clay, oil paint, 23.5K gold leaf, cold rolled steel frame, 2017

John Sabraw

Merging Art and Science

Interviewed by Lorena Alvarez

How long have you been an environmental activist?  

So, it was funny because my mother, when we were young, after the split with the parents, she was a teacher, and there would be various protests for things at the Capitol Building. I remember going with them to the protests and things like that. So from early on, I kind of had this marriage of regular life with being politically active. So for me, it wasn't something you'd go do, it was just a part of life well, it was a norm.

As an activist, what led you to become an artist, and how did you define painting as your medium? 

Doing my undergraduate in Brooklyn, that was at the heart of the AIDS crisis, being there at that time in the creative community where we were losing people every day, every hour to this pandemic and physically being amongst those that were really affected by it. Witnessing the ineffectiveness of the government, the devastation was so palpable, and we really did not have PPE or anything like that. I remember there were just so many people that you really knew and just watch them and know they would die. People vomiting and everything on the streets with just signs saying like you know I'm dying of AIDS help me. There was very little at the time you knew. Reflecting on it now, this is probably an early sort of marriage of I think my art and activism even though they weren't the same thing. I think I always saw my creativity intersecting those things but it was inexorably during those formative years you know, 18-19 years old that it came together. I basically went into painting and just merged all my life experiences of activism. 

What do you consider the starting point of your art and activism as becoming one? 

We had 9/11 while I was teaching my second year and the conversations in the classroom were very very fraught and the intersection with art was very very plain. That's when I think I was very like taking it back by the seriousness of what my role was going to be.  I'm just like teaching people to draw paint and now I have got to sort of sort out politics and young minds and futures in one classroom. That was an interesting and a difficult time for me because I had to learn and I began teaching experimental courses called Art and activism. That’s I think probably the real start, 2001 to 2003, the real beginning of me figuring out that these things were really intertwined for me. 

Geothite Dorango, Geothite pigment from acid mine drainage pollution, Apoxie clay, 6 inch diameter, 2021

When did you first incorporate environmental issues in your art?  

So when you are teaching a class like that people are going to ask... so what are you doing? You know, ohh... I am teaching you guys. So I thought about it and I began to realize that you know all this hate mail that I got, all of my letter writing was doing nothing. I wasn’t changing a thing. I wasn't changing a single mind or doing anything. And I really started to just ask what the heck can I do? What can I change? What can I actually change, not talk about changing?And so for a while I did a bunch of crazy projects while teaching this class like I created a I work with and I created an algorithm that artists could log onto a website called Green world and they can log on to it, enter how many art works they done that year and it would give them the amount of carbon that they produced, the greenhouse gases that they produced. And in an offset they could buy a carbon credits directly from there and also at least make their practice carbon neutral. And I did that thing, you probably saw about the Mona Lisa and I bought carbon credits to offset that so it is a carbon neutral artwork now. So congratulations Leonardo.

Teaching in New York seems to be the appropriate place to be if you are an artist and an activist.
What made you come to Ohio? 

As I was doing these activist courses and I was writing letters. I often wrote you know opinions and letters for the newspapers and things like that. So, I wrote this one very small piece about the Iraq invasion saying how we should just wait and get a coalition before we jump the gun and do this thing. The next thing I know I am getting boxes and boxes of hate mail, there was like death threats. When like someone finds your address and you're going up against a Republican president or a conservative president I guess, there is a coalition of people out there that just will send you hate mail, no names, no addresses, no phone numbers no emails, no nothing to contact them back. They will flood you with cards and letters saying things like your the devil, your satan, we are going to kill you and all that stuff. My daughter was last2, 3 years old and I gotta a wife and I am supposed to…right? So we then came to Ohio because we needed to change the scenery, my wife and I. We weren't finding anything but when we came here to our surprise even though it's Appalachia in this little blue bubble, this little town, there was so much faculty from around the world that her Elementary class really reflected her mixed race because my daughter's mixed race. and That was when we were like yeah okay this is good for her for like 3 years, that was 20 years ago. 

What was your first environmental activist art collaborate project? 

I did this big, hugh exhibition. It was a 3-room installation called Scale. I worked with 2 astrophysicists who are just amazing people, great friends to this day. Dr.Tom Statler, Dr Mongola Sherma and what I did was I basically took sort of the Ems and Carl Sagan idea about scale and I turned that into artwork. You walked through so that you actually had to feel the scale of the Milky Way Galaxy, what a centimeter was and all these different things. And once you went through a few rooms and you understood scale, like wow! We are so tiny, and the universe is so big. And the last thing was actually a digital projection that was an animation, and it drew connections between scientists around history of all different cultures around the world. It connected every culture to every other scientist around the world showing that basically these divides at the time which was still a carryover from 9-11 and Irak invasion when we were really xenophobic towards followers of Islam, or you name it. That was the moment when not just writing about things, protesting things, getting in trouble or any of that. That is when my work as an artist became activist in it of itself.  

What led you to incorporate sustainability in your art? 

Through Scale, we got really good national press, and I made amazing friends out of it. There is a million stories some I can tell, some I can’t. But at the end of it you know, people just talked they just talked. They didn’t do anything. I mean I am sure some people did by the way, but like the impact was not proportional to the news and nothing from the exhibition itself altered the course of anything going on. And that was when I was having a deep think. I was like man.  

I had already become interested in sustainability because I was seeing the intersection between war and poverty, racism and xenophobia. I was seeing all of that play out and I was seeing it was about resources, sharing of resources and not sharing of resources. At that point in time that because of the arid land the farmers were coming into the cities and there was all this crazy stuff going on. I was, man, sustainability was at the core of all this, this dumb thing. We have got to live sustainably, it is so dumb. It is the simple idea, simple, go to the basics. That was the basis of it.  

How did you come about the idea of using waste to create your own paint? 

So, I was really lucky, there was a group of environmental studies facutly faculty here, and they formed a small faculty study group called the Kaana project, open to any faculty members. They got a little bit of funding, so I signed on. What they did was take us around, because I am not from Ohio and I am certainly not from this part. They would talk about the history, environmental history over here and I was really interested in the environment because that is where I go to recharge, those are things that I love. I would always take my daughter, letslet’s go out west, I gotta show you the desert, I gotta show you the mountains, I gotta show you all this stuff.  Seeing this environment, which is totally different, all these hills are hollow because they are all coal mined out. In fact, you have to have some science insurance because they are all mined underneath. Almost 4 million tons of coal were moved from underground Ohio alone. I’m learning all this stuff.  

Maybe I was meant to be here, maybe I can do something. But I was like, what do I do just go like stop coal. And that is when they took us to these mine seeps, and you can smell it is very sulfur smelling, itsit’s almost— there is a tang in the air kind of acidic in a way. And then you see the river, every seep is different, but a lot of it there is this very thick slug that sticks to the sides and nothing lives in it. You can not, there is really almost no aquatic life that lives in these streams. For miles and miles and miles, 13 hundred stream miles in Ohio alone aquatically dead, no fish, no nothing. They were like this is iron sludge and it is acid, and it is iron, and metals and it comes out of these coal mines.  

And I was like OK it’s iron sludge, how pure is it? It is pretty much just iron it is like 90% iron oxide with some magnesium and some other things. And I was like, half my paints are iron oxide, hmm do you think I can make paint out of it? They looked at me like ooohh…so I just took a jar of the sludge back with me to my studio and I was like, I ‘llI’ll make paint out of it because I know how to make paints. It did not work; it was very bad. I made claggy, chunky, orange concrete, that is all it was, nothing more. It was very bad, nothing worked out and I was oh my gosh. So I realized, I don’t know how to do this, maybe it is not possible, but this jar of terrible things was staring at me in my studio.  

And this point Scale was over and I was kind of having an artistic crisis in figuring out what am I going to do. It is at that time that my friend, Elaine Getz, who was getting her PHD PhD in Civil Engineering and Environmental Engineering, was studying under Professor Guy Riefler. And she is like, “hey I am studying under this professor, and I know you are an artist, and he needs an artist's help if you want to have coffee with him.”| And I was like sure, so we just had coffee over here right uptown. He was like I need an artist, I can not figure out how to make a good pigment. I can get the iron out, but I can’t figure out how to make the iron into good pigment. Funny you should say this because I have been trying to make pigment out of it as well, and that was it, we just started working together.  

We are 3 partners, me, Professor Guy Riefler who provides his scientific knowledge and our other partner, Michelle Shively is the one who understands stream health, she does water sampling to see what fish is in there and what invertebrates and insects and she tells us if this is going to work or not. She is also the water shed coordinator for Sunday Creek, rural action, local environmental organizations and is the one who everybody likes, she is our ambassador. 

Where did you get the scientific help to create paint out of this iron sludge?   
Can you tell us about your journey in the making of the paint?  

Well, here is the thing, we know how to make a good paint, we know how to make a good iron-oxide pigment. We have been successful at that with 5 gallons in the lab but doing it with 1.5 million gallons of pollution every day is a very different story. When we finally got our palette facility, built at Corning, which is the second worst seep in Ohio, it was about 12 gallons at a time and it was not working. That is not what we wanted it to do. Why is it not doing what we want it to do? Every time we hit a good milestone there is a couple of years as to why is it not working like it worked in the lab. 

Five years ago, 2017, is when I actually got in touch with Gamblin Artist colors. Hey, crazy guy, we are doing this stuff and they began to work with us. They told us your grind has to be this, this has to be that, helping us figure out our problems. Once we made a good batch of pigment, they were like let'’s make paint out of it and we started a campaign. Once we were able to go to funders and tell them, here is an art paint manufacturer who knows quality pigments and they like our pigments, that is when funders started to throw money our way. That is how we got the pilot facility built. 

After a few years of success at that, Gamblin suggested releasing a pack of 3 paints. That was so big that it got the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and [they] became a really good partner for us. They helped us get a commitment of 3.5 million dollars of abandoned mine laned reclamation funds.  

The amazing thing is that this year there was a lot more infrastructure money leftover that ended up going into some of these federal organizations so some of that is now possibly ear mark for a project so instead of having partial funding we might be in a position to have full capital funding to get the plant running in addition to possibly a couple of years of operational cost to make sure it runs pretty smoothly.  

All our partners have helped us to be in a place now where we are only a couple, 3 weeks away from having our final agreement with the company who is actually going to do the engineering design for the plant and within 8–-9 months we should have a design set, ready to bid, contract out and be building in 2024. Have the plant running at the end of 2024 and fully running hopefully with some problems, issues resolved in early 2025. At Truetown, this plant will intercept and treat 1–-1.5 million gallons per day, it varies a little bit with rainfall, of this acid pollution. The plant will remove 7200 pounds of iron every single day. There is no way to stop this [flow of iron oxide from the mines into the water], it will eventually bleed out but will take hundreds of years. This is the best solution to the problem [creating a plant to clean the water and use the iron oxide to make paint]. You could have a millionaire set up a fund to have it cleaned up every year but it would take 5–-8 million dollars to clean it up. We can do it that way but then we are paying to landfill, hiding the iron not recycling it and this is what me and the professor felt.  

We have to make this work to prove that art and science working together really can produce innovative and sustainable solutions to issues that we face now. And we are almost there. [By building this plant and getting it running we will be able to prove that art and science can work together for a greater good.] 

Rural Action was the one who let everybody know we had the support of the ODNR and were able to get someone onboard who bought the project not as an investor but made an anonymous donation to purchase almost 40 acres of land and sold off the house where the owner who original owned the seep lived, carved it off and sold it to someone else. Now we have all this land and are working with engineering companies who understand how to build a million, 2, or 5 million gallons a day treatment plants. They have been helping us for the last 2 years, letting us know where and why it isn't working at scale, which has helped us refine the area where we need to put in the most research to solve our problem.

Fired at10000.jpeg
How much do you involve your students in this project?  

A tremendous amount. The great thing is that our initial funders, Sugar Rush Foundation gave us a couple years of funding and the last years they have given a good amount of funding. A solid portion of that goes to fund grad students workers' hourly pay as well as stipends so they can live and tuition reimbursement. Basically we can fund a good amount of student expenses.  

Typically during the school year we will have about a dozen students working on it and I also make sure it is part of my classes, part of my teaching. I teach them how to make sustainable art and help the environment.  

Right now we have a project going on which is really fun with my juniors and seniors where they are actually creating 3D creatures out of their imagination. They don’t have to be anything, some are making like a mobile home, a bunch of things. What we are doing is putting them into the acid seep, because once it is in there, the bacteria will start to build iron colonies on it because there is a certain strain of bacteria that can actually live there. They eat the dissolved iron in the pollution, and they excrete iron oxide crystals which is what we need. They do a pretty good job at it, they are great workers and these things become coated, really interesting formations. And what we are doing is putting all kind of different sensors on it that will react to the bacteria, water temperature and whatever else, we are collecting data from those sensors and that data we are putting into different programs and generating A.I. artwork. Essentially our artwork is created by the bacteria. 

As an art Professor what other courses have you taught to instill activism and sustainable art in your students? 

I certainly carried these experiences forward coming to Ohio University and have incorporated a lot of the activist content into my classes through projects. For a couple of years here I taught another set of experimental courses called Save the World which was a hilarious class for juniors and seniors that was basically like in the first week they had to work in small groups and identify how to save the entire world. Okay and of course it failed every time, every time it failed disastrously.  

And then we would work backwards and like why did it fail you know what we can do. Their last project that they had for that class was all along them having to identify a demographic in a community that they felt that they could have an impact on. At the end of the class, each group had to do a public project that would affect that Community possibly somehow Public Art Projects classroom.  

Can you tell us about your new series and the artistic process? 

My new series which is Chroma Series are made in aluminum plates treated by NASA for airplanes. They are set horizontally on structures underneath with threads which I can raise and lower allowing me to tilt them trying to get what I want to happen. I make these because they do 2 things; one is that it fights me really hard and it humbles me because I am not able to be responsible for every aspect of it. I have ideas, I choose colors I use a different set of brushes or whatever else I am using. I want this to happen, and nature has another idea. It usually does something amorphic, these textures emerge that have never happened in any I have made, don’t know how it does it, so it reminds me of how mysterious, beautiful, enigmatic and sublime the world is.  

Like no joke, when I make it and it does these weird things, I am frustrated by it, very frustrated, but I am also discovering so then I will respond to that with my next layers. My next layers [of paint] are: “if you are going to do that…I’ll do this and sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t”. Basically, at some point there is a sort of détente that is reached and then the painting is done. But that could involve layers of oil paint, it could involve a torch that can involve dry pigments. Right now I am laser cutting mining tunnels into my pieces. 

What mediums do you use? 

You name it. A lot of them are water based, sometimes they are caseins, watercolors. A lot of times they are acrylics. I am trying to shift to hot wax, encaustics, [and] trying to find a way to get entirely off of plastics in the next couple of years is my goal. 

How does your work help create environmental awareness?

I started making my series and the Chicago Art Gallery were the first ones to show it. And they did not know what they were getting because I was a hyper realist painter. You could not find a brush stroke in any of my pieces. I know what I wanted to happen when I made these [abstract paintings]. I got a feeling of what they turned into but also [as the artist creating the work] I do not have an objective feeling because I have been living with them too much.  

A thing that happens that I really like is what happened to you [Lorena]. You look at my pieces and it reminds you of these microscopic photographs of rocks. What I discovered when people are in these exhibitions, the coolest thing happens. I hang them up at a show, and at the opening I will see someone stare at a painting across the room. I am chatting with someone else, and I’ll see them turn around and search the room looking for me make a bee line over to me, and do exactly what you did. A thing that happens that I really like is what happened to you [Lorena]. You look at my pieces and it reminds you of these microscopic photographs of rocks. They will say you know I cannot believe that looks exactly like Niagara Falls looked like when I was 6...  

And that is cool, because what happens there is they are bringing to me of their own accord their experience that is important to them, their perspective and their emotional and psychological attachments to those things. When they do that, the conversation about sustainability, conversation about them taking action, about activism is a natural flow into that.  

I don't have to dictate to someone, don't have to shame anybody or throw stats at them. They find the part in them that is connected to nature, love and sustainability community has been called out and it was me who did it (me meaning them) and the painting was the catalyst to do that. That is how I am able to create environmental awareness. That I didn’t expect and it happens all the time. And I love it— it is the most fun.  

What projects or collaborations are you currently working on? 

This takes a lot of time, a daily activity. This project is full on, there are millions of dollars at stake, miles and miles of streams at stake, lots of partnerships at stake so it takes most of my time. I do sneak a lot of things along the side like recently I just did a collaboration, one with Nova Lup, a company in Menlo Park California, It it is 2 amazing scientists Gennie Al and Myranda Wang and they are working on a way to recycle the unrecyclable plastics back into virgin plastics. It is amaizingamazing and they work with the GreenWaste in the San Francisco Bay Area to intercept the plastics that come through their waste stream from us and try to recycle those. So they sent me some plastic stuff and I included that in the painting and did a piece which was in my Palo Alto Gallery.  

Another one is Ashley Beck with is this great researcher who is working with Draper Labs at MIT. She is thinking of a way to take tree cells and cultivate them in the lab so we can actually grow them. Those grown cells will then provide paper and lumber without having to cut forest down anymore. So, I will read these things and I’ll go “Hey can I have some of your tree stuff?” and she sent me some samples of her tree fibers and then I ground those up and made a painting out of them and I made a little painting and sent it to her and made another to put on my shelf. Those are the kind of things I do on the side. 

What advice would you give an artist trying to make sustainable art, where would they start? 

The unsatisfying answer is that you start with any project that you know you can finish. Let's say you take cardboard, and you are going to make a surface where you can paint on it, just do it, no matter how bad it is, do it and tell its story. You will be embarrassed about parts of it. You will be thinking that parts of it should never go public. You will be thinking it's definitely not the best artwork I have done, it is not even artwork that is up to my standards.  

Do the project anyway, document the process very well, tell that story on your website, on your social media. The reason to do that first, [is because] that is the place to start, if you have completed one project you understood for yourself and you went through the process. I'm learning, trying something out, trying an idea and this is how it turned out. And I am willing to share that. If you do that, that is the permission that other people need to accept a collaborative offer from you.  

If you ask someone to collaborate with you on a project, they will go to your social media and website first. “‘I don’t know, what have they done looks like she has done nothing”’ and they are not going to reply. But if you call them and tell them you have finished this project called “Cardboard to Canvas”, when you reach out to them and they go to your website, they will see you have actually done something and you will get the email or call back and perhaps they will accept having a conversation over a cup of coffee and see if maybe something crosses over.  

John Sabraw.jpeg

The same iron oxide pigment from Sulfur Springs Hollow fired at 1000 degrees Celsius

Dried and processed raw iron oxide pigment from Sulfur Springs Hollow, Ohio

Grinding Pigment into paint

About the author

Lorena Alvarez was born in Mexico and raised partly in Milwaukee, but mainly in Mexico City.  She received her Bachelor Degree in Graphic Design with a Minor in Illustration from Universidad Anahuac, in Mexico City. She earned her Master of Fine Arts in Computer Art with a concentration in Motion Graphics in Savannah College of Art and Design, in Georgia. She is currently pursuing a Master in Fine Arts Degree in Painting with a Minor in Printmaking where she was awarded a graduate assistantship.  Lorena´s work was selected to be part of an exhibit at the “National Museum of the Might Eight Airforce”, Savannah, honoring women at war.  She won a contest for the creation of a beverage, container and design for the Bacardi Company in Mexico. 

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