Q & A about my paintings using pigments from Toxic Acid Mine Drainage
What motivated you to turn toxic sludge into pigments?
When I moved to Ohio several years ago I was in a sustainability immersion group called “Kanawha;” we toured the area of southern
Ohio and I was struck by the local streams that are largely orange, red and brown as if a mud slide was happening further upstream. I
found out that these colors were mainly from iron oxide, the same raw materials used to make many paint colors, but this iron oxide
was from polluted water from abandoned coal mines. I thought it would be fantastic to use this toxic flow to make paintings rather than
with imported iron oxide from China. It turned out that environmental engineer and fellow Ohio University professor Guy Riefler had
already been working to create viable paint from this toxic sludge; so we began collaborating.
Where do you find the pigments?
Here, near the Ohio River in the southern part of the state, is the largest concentration of coal burning power plants in the world.
Scattered over thousands of square miles are innumerable abandoned or disused underground coal mines. Rainwater seeps into these
caverns and becomes contaminated with toxic levels of heavy metals. This water then flows out into streams and rivers turning them
yellow, orange and red as the metals oxidize when the water mixes with oxygen. This is where we find our pigments.
What is your method of turning pigments sourced from pollution into paint?
We pump the toxic, acidic water coming from the mines into a large, portable container and bring it to the lab. At this point it is fairly
clear, then our engineers pour it into tanks with bubblers set to aerate it at a certain rate. As the metals oxidize they fall to the bottom
and become a wet sludge of mostly iron oxide. We collect this and blend it with acrylic polymers and resins to make paint ranging in
hues from yellow to brown to red to black; or it is dried to a powder form and ground with a traditional linseed oil and glass muller
technique to make oil based paint.
Can these pigments be used for a commercial purposes?
Absolutely, that is the end goal. We are working on creating the pigment on a commercial scale. The plan is to sell this pigment to
manufacturers in place of the imported iron oxide pigment they already use. We hope that state agencies will choose to use the
products from the manufacturers that use our pigment exclusively, as the process of creating it will be doing the state and citizens a
great service. The revenue from the sale of this pigment will fund the continued remediation of the streams.
How do you contribute in the care of the environment with this process?
This process proves the efficacy of finding creative solutions to our environmental issues. Several things are achieved simultaneously:
1. By sourcing supplies locally instead of shipping from great distances we greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from
2. By creating a viable, useful product from the contamination we provide a closed loop that virtually eliminates waste.
3. By ensuring a marketable product for commercial use it is possible to fully fund restoring these streams from the very clean up itself.
4. By implementing renewable energy sources the project should emit only very small amounts of greenhouse gases thereby not creating
another source of pollution in the process.
5. It is also likely to create a model for other types if environmental clean up.
6. It will employ more people doing good for the environment.
7. It will raise awareness of these issues and possible solutions to them in a very positive way.
How are your chroma paintings made?
Once the pigment is made into paint, acrylic or oil based, it is used as any other paint would be used; as a single color, or mixed with
others. I paint the “chroma” series of paintings by starting with a composite aluminum panel that’s held steady and completely flat with a
steel jig, then I draw a circle on the surface. I brush and pour various water based resins and mixtures that include different pigments. I
build the surface very slowly but it must stay wet. When the first phase is done the water and pigment form a bubble held together only
by surface tension: like a bead of rain on a waxed surface. At this point the painting looks like a primordial pool that morphs and shifts
like an oil slick on wet pavement. I add more and more until right before the mass will break the surface tension, and if that surface
tension breaks the whole thing will burst so I often use an eye dropper towards the end to closely administer each and every drop.
When that delicate balancing act is complete I cover the whole thing to keep dust and insects out and then let the it dry for weeks until
the liquid evaporates and the temporal, fluid image remains. The end results are unpredictable and the materials and process allow for
infinite variations and beautiful combinations.
Q & A about Art, Activism and Science
What do you think the role of the artist is in ecological activism and education?
I collaborate with many scientists and artists in widely differing fields; and I have come to the conclusion that scientists and artists share
two critical aspects: curiosity and failure. We are endlessly curious, try new things, and fail often. But that failure does not dampen our
curiosity. So the artist, like the scientist, has a crucial role to perform in our society: see things differently, act on this vision, report the
failures and successes.
This role can be played out in infinite ways: painting, social sculpture, performance art, activist art, etc. all relating important and specific
visions designed to challenge complacency, open minds, and motivate action. This is an effective method of education, and can also be
Most of the conflict, injustice, and devastation in the world today can be traced back to supply and demand related to abuse of natural
resources. I think the artist lucky enough to be in a country with the wealth and access that we have owes a debt to use this support to
push for greater responsibility, positive change, and sustainability.
Do you think that art and science have to have a closer relationship to take advantage of their work and their discoveries?
Yes. Though artists and scientists share curiosity and failure there are different constraints on each. Where the scientist usually has a
tightly focused research goal, the artist has few limits and can often see methodologies and possible outcomes from a broader and
more creative vantage point. But where the artist has broad conceptions, the scientist has depth of knowledge to allow for actual
implementation and is far more aware of the specific problems that need to be solved.
So rather than divided disciplines, and/or separated tasks, artists and scientists should share the same space and collaborate in a more
organic fashion. In some cases the artist’s role is to break down conventional methods and thoughts so that science can make leaps.
Other times artists need to serve scientists so that the critical aspects that science must address can be more compelling and generate
awareness and support and also help the general population feel that they are a part of scientific progress; that it is not only for those
who have advanced degrees.
Do you think that art is a way to make claims against companies that don’t take care about the environment?
Yes. Many artists and art groups are doing this now, but I think the art needs to criticize more specifically and more compellingly. Artists
also need to collaborate with activists and other agencies more effectively – perhaps this can activate those who are still apathetic.
Is there a criticism in your art to the lack of care to the environment, mainly by the companies, but also by the citizens?
Certainly. Perhaps I am naïve, but if I think of sustainability as protecting our shared environment and providing renewable resources
for everyone’s basic needs and consumption; it is the most important aspect of our world to work on. If we changed so that we all lived
sustainably; our lives would be richer, our future more promising, and violence would be minimized.
So I decided to start with myself, my family and my art practice. I think we all have to examine our life and do whatever we can to live
more sustainably. And certainly governments and corporations are the worst and must be held accountable by their citizens.
What would be your advice to artists who want to work with sustainable materials?
Start today. It’s easy. Make one small change at a time and in very short order artists will find themselves with a much more sustainable
practice. For example: are you using linen or canvas to paint on? Linen is by far more environmentally friendly, so begin to switch over
from canvas. If an artist can’t easily find out which material is more sustainable, then just purchase carbon offset credits from
CarbonFund.org. Just ballpark it; use estimates for travel, shipping, etc. you’ll be doing something good and you can boast to your
clients about it. Don't worry about being perfect, just start working toward a more sustainable practice and it will happen before you
know it. Remember that being an artist is a production. The artist is a special kind of consumer and must take responsibility for their
consumption, production and waste. Analyze your consumption, reduce where possible, offset where it’s not.