Arts

To reconnect with the land and her art, Anong Beam is making her own natural, sustainable paints

The ingredients in Beam Paints are locally sourced from Manitoulin Island and have attracted attention from paint lovers and artists around the globe.

The ingredients in Beam Paints are locally sourced from Manitoulin Island, where she grew up and works

Beam Paints paintstones wrapped in beeswaxed cloth. (Anong Beam)

When Anong Beam looks back on her beginnings as a paint manufacturer, she remembers it feeling "abstractive."

"It seemed like such a really extreme thing," she recalls. "It would be like somebody saying, 'I want to learn how to make plastic Tupperware.'"

Nevertheless, Beam Paints was born. Invested in language recovery, Beam set out to give Ojibwe names to her paintstones (lightfast pigments from which paint can be prepared); one is called "Shingwauk'aande" for "pine," another "Piichi Waawnun'aande" for "Robin's Egg Blue." Locally sourced from Manitoulin Island, where the artist grew up and works, the paintstones are made from natural ingredients like honey from the land itself.

Creating paints shone a light for her on the wastefulness of common paint-making manufacturing. "When I started making paints for other people, the way that it's laid out traditionally in Western tradition is very plastic and disposable," she says. Exceeding Health Canada's safety requirements by "three times," she strives to use healthy, sustainable ingredients in her paints.

"Most people don't realize how pervasive plastic is in paint and how far that takes it into so many corners of our lives."

Beam Paints Giizhgaande Sky Blue paintstone. (Anong Beam)

Beam herself comes from a line of visionaries. Those seeds were sowed in M'Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island, where her parents were full-time artists.

Her father Carl Beam made history in 1986 when his work was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada — a first for a contemporary First Nations artist, paving the way for generations of First Nations artists after him. She fondly speaks about being homeschooled and accompanying her parents on trips where they focused on Indigenous ceramic practice of North America, and traded pigment stones with other artists across the country.

These are the memories that have a deep-rooted connection to her paintings. Often bridging her pieces to her place of upbringing, she says she's stimulated by the "Northern bohemian." Moose, birds, and water are some of the many themes that run through her recent works.

As an adult, Beam opened an arts-supply store on Manitoulin Island and quickly realized the paints in her shop were foreign-made in places like England and China. "People came into my little shop and because it was so tiny, they wanted to know where the paints came from," she remembers. "It was really far away. I wanted to learn how to make paint."

Beam Paints' Mini Birch Cookie Set. (Anong Beam)

Beam scoured the internet and dove into different resources that could awaken her potential to create the paints herself. She describes paint-making as an "ability to connect with artists all over the world and share this common dialogue that we all have about colour."

"I'm purchasing, from afar, these ingredients," she recalls. "And after I had done that and I was holding them in my hands, I realized that I recognized them at a physical level from when I was a child. And I realized I know what this is and I know what I'm doing."

It was from there that she started to bring not just art, but industry into her community. She remembers a different time in M'Chigeeng, when she says there wasn't a "future for arts" before the age of the internet. Beam Paints began changing what that really meant.

Beam set out to make paints so people inside and outside of her community could feel a bond with it. "I wanted to share with people how I felt: the feeling of being, that connection to the earth that I would feel as a little kid, finding paintstones with my dad."

Anong Beam: "My son digging 'miskwaabigun' to prepare for our red clay colour." (Anong Beam)

Having artists for parents ultimately shaped Beam's perspective on approaching art and appreciating it. Now, she joins in those same traditions with her children. As a single mom when they were young, she often brought them along to brooks and quarries — ranging over the very places she once explored with her own parents.

She shares these profound learnings with paint lovers and artists globally. Getting letters and feedback from them drives her to do more and better work every day.

"People send cards and they let me know that the paint has helped them reconnect to their practice," she says. "I hear that quite a lot. And it's extraordinary to me."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Keena Alwahaidi is an associate producer for CBC. She reports on arts, culture, and human interest stories. Follow her on Twitter at @keenaalwahaidi

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