Braddock shop helps clean Third World countries' water
Mini-factory turning out ceramic cones that filter bacteria
February 8, 2009 5:00 AM
Jeff Schwarz places a clay mixture on the mold, forming a cone. The cone is fired at 1,700 degrees. When finished, it acts as a natural filter for contaminated water.
By Diana Nelson Jones Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As a distressed community, Braddock could make a good argument for getting a government bailout. Instead, it has become a producer of stimulus packages for communities with greater problems.
Last fall, the Braddock Pot Shop -- a ceramics workshop operated by the Braddock Carnegie Arts Program in the basement of the Carnegie Library -- took on an additional role: North America's first water filter factory.
At Mayor John Fetterman's urging, AmeriCorps agreed to make a former volunteer a full-time employee in the factory to produce ceramic cones that filter bacteria from water. It is an affiliate of the international network Potters for Peace.
AmericaCorps volunteers have worked in the ceramics studio since it was established in 2003 and been active for years in youth programs in Braddock. AmericaCorps alumni include Mr. Fetterman.
Jeff Schwarz, 33, a teacher in the studio, stepped into his full-time role impassioned about clay's potential to improve and save lives -- in the Third World or in developed countries during emergency situations in which drinking water supplies have been contaminated.
A graduate of Slippery Rock University, he caught the water filter bug from Richard Wukich, his mentor and teacher. Mr. Wukich is a member of Potters for Peace and has brought the group's founder and other leaders to campus.
The potters group was founded in Nicaragua in 1986, when American ceramists reached out to help their artistic brethren find markets for their wares. As their ranks grew and they traversed the Third World, they saw how much more ceramics could accomplish than decorate a mantel.
In the late 1990s, when Hurricane Mitch tore through Central America, Ron Rivera, international coordinator of Potters for Peace, created a prototype of the ceramic water filter for use by Nicaraguans who needed potable water.
Mr. Wukich, a native of North Braddock, took students from Slippery Rock to Nicaragua to help in hurricane relief efforts. The pot shop was his vision, and he brought it home to his struggling community six years ago.
Mr. Schwarz, a native of Portersville, helped him set it up in the library and returned to the shop as a volunteer after completing graduate school at Syracuse University.
Mr. Schwarz and his brother, Jonathan, a volunteer, work three days a week in the pot shop turning out ceramic cones. The operation is small, like affiliates in places such as Sudan, Honduras and Indonesia.
They mix clay with sawdust to create an adobe-like mixture that is molded into a cone shape inside a truck jack. When fired at 1,700 degrees, the sawdust burns away and the vessel becomes porous. While drying in a row on a table, the vessels look like props worn by the Conehead family on "Saturday Night Live."
The finishing ingredient is a coating of colloidal silver -- water infused with tiny bits of silver that remain suspended and turn water the color of ale. As the colloid drains through the porous cone, the silver's properties impregnate the clay and kill bacteria when water is poured through it again.
The rimmed cones are made to fit inside decorative decanters and other receptacles, which will be displayed this month at Braddock's Unsmoke Art Space, 1137 S. Braddock Ave.
In the underheated shop on a recent morning, Mr. Schwarz, in scarf and heavy sweat shirt, described the segues that led him to create water filters.
After taking one ceramics class in college, he changed his major from secondary education. He still wants to teach, "But you know how you know when something is right?
"I grew up in a blue-collar family and ceramics felt blue-collar. It felt common, and that connected with me."
At Slippery Rock, he met Mr. Rivera while attending the annual water filter conference. Spending time that weekend with Mr. Rivera was "like when people have a religious experience," Mr. Schwarz said.
"Such a simple solution," said Mr. Schwarz, cupping his hands as if around a giant bowl. "Clay is the most abundant material on the face of the earth. The same material we make our artwork from is the material that can save someone's life. That is humbling."
In many locales, he said, drinking water comes from the same source where animals defecate, women wash clothes and children play. Unlike many high-price international development plans, the clay filter is a cheap, low-tech solution to fulfill the vast need for potable water.
The pot shop contracts with the University of Virginia to buy and test the vessels. Groups such as Doctors Without Borders deliver them throughout the Third World. The first 10 produced in Braddock went to a province in South Africa.
Mr. Fetterman said the pot shop "is such a great fit on so many levels, a perfect marriage between artistic endeavor and public policy, a slant we like."
The pot shop gets support in part from the Forest Hills Rotary Club's Pure Water for All project. The studio was created with economic development money set aside by the Sanders decree, a 1994 court order in a housing discrimination case.
Besides turning out water filters -- about 20 on a good day -- Mr. Schwarz also manages the studio and continues to teach children there. Their creations -- clay heads, abstract figurines and clay people the colors of dung and biscuit -- sit in various stages on shelves in the kiln room. The children also receive a lesson on water filters.
"I try to deliver the message gently," said Mr. Schwarz. "I show them videos" about rural people who must live without sanitary water.
He said he wants his students to see that, though they are from a poor town, they are luckier than most children in the world, who could not drink water safely from a tap if they had one.