15 Handcrafted Watercolours in Plastic Free Packaging, Influenced by Indigenous Paint Tradition with Anong Migwans Beam from Beam Paints
In today’s episode, we chat with Anong Migwans Beam from Beam Paints. We learn how Anong’s father taught her to harvest pigment near her home in M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin island, how she’s been inspired by her artist parents and indigenous paint traditions, we explore her deep connection to colours, and discover why she’s made the choice to use beeswax, cotton remnants, cedar and birch offcuts and other sustainable materials over plastics for her packaging.
If you want to learn more about Anong and her plastic-free paints handcrafted from harvested pigments and wildflower honey visit www.beampaints.com Looking to support a 100% indigenous-owned business? You can purchase Anong’s beautifully vibrant paint stones direct or through independent art supply stores across Canada. You can follow along with Anong and be inspired by a life full of colour on Facebook or Instagram
About the Host
I'm Jennifer Myers Chua. The Host and Producer of the Cost Of Goods Sold podcast. I'm an entrepreneur, a creative, a cookbook fanatic, mother. I have always been interested in hearing people's stories and I've been determined to change the world for as long as I can remember.
You'll find me at home in Toronto deconstructing recipes, listening to podcasts, enjoying time with friends or wandering alone through a big city. I'm excited to have you here. Let's do better, together.
[00:02:13] Jennifer Chua: “Pollution is nothing but the resources we’re not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.” This is a quote that Anong shared with me and it’s by Buckminster Fuller, she brought it up during our conversation. And after learning more about Anong and her process. It’s so clear why this quote resonates with her. Anong manufacturers, high-quality watercolours by hand blending together lightfast pigments tree sap gum Arabic and Manitoulin honey, her paints are brilliant and they’re well-loved by her customers.
She uses materials that would otherwise be waste as well from a number of other businesses to create beam paints, including byproducts from mining offcuts, from an indigenous sustainable lumber operation and remnants from the textile industry and beam paints are proudly operating as plastic-free as possible. Her packaging is completely free of plastic and we’ll learn more about what she uses and why she does so in a bit. And constantly evaluating her choices to find more sustainable solutions is something that Anong really enjoys. But what makes the story of beam paints so interesting is that Anong’s business is the result of a multi-generational love of pigment, paint, colour, and innovation.
Anong was taught from a young age, how to harvest pigments in the Le Cloche mountain range near her home in M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island. And it’s her early education in indigenous pigments. The fact that she sources the minerals and the pigments for Beam Paints locally. The influence of this artistic world that she grew up in and how clearly so many of her life experiences have woven their way into this venture. Today Anong operates out of two studios, right where she grew up, she’s raising her sons here. There are a lot of people and animals buzzing around. There are goats and cows and chickens pheasants. And on either side of the property are the studios. Anong operates the fulfillment side of the business, the shipping, the packing in her mother’s old art studio. And the manufacturing of the paint from her father’s art studio. Beam paints, what Anong is trying to do with the brand and the impact she’s creating is so tied to this story. And so tied to this place.
[00:04:43] Anong Beam: We’re here in Mchigeeng first nation on, uh, my parent’s family land. So I’m about half an acre away from where my dad was born in a log cabin in the forties.
Both my parents were artists they were fully self-employed as artists for my whole childhood. They had had other jobs. My mom was the first woman ever employed at the Toronto Star in the art department in the sixties. And my dad is renowned Canadian artist. He was a governor General’s award for excellence in visual arts winner, 2004 or five. And he was also the first indigenous artists to be purchased as contemporary art by the national gallery of Canada in 1986. So big shoes, big, uh, big thinkers.
Really so much of what I do now is really so much like what my parents were doing with me when I was a kid. And, uh, they were both really interested in, uh, traditional ceramics and traditional pigments.
So we spent, I was homeschooled. We spent a lot of my youth driving. All over north America, down in the Southwest in Arizona and New Mexico and in BC, all parts of Ontario and, uh, visiting other artists or their ceramic indigenous ceramic artists painters and all the while my dad is looking for different pigments, different rocks. We were always off on side of the road, off at quarries or gravel pits, rock cuts, different different places, looking for stones that had those particular qualities. And that was my favorite thing. I just loved looking around it, all of the rocks and the colors and the differences that could be found.
[00:06:53] Jennifer Chua: Could you explain how pigments work? Cause I think that this is something that people might not understand, where a pigment paint might come from. Can you us an idea of how that whole process works?
[00:07:06] Anong Beam: Yeah, it’s something that I didn’t really understand. And it’s definitely not widely understood. Probably because the ability to make color and pigment is so, it’s so broad, there’s so many ways to approach it. And historically, it’s been such a journey like the us as humanity, all cultures of really. United in this search for great color, like through the centuries. So you see the history of color, really igniting trade routes between Asia and your aunt. Uh, early explorers being really excited about sources of color and a lot of the color becoming so defining to groups of people to countries.
Rose matter, red was the red that England used for the red coats. So, they had huge industry in obtaining routes to get matter, to make that die, to have that in their flag as like a national colour. And that colour becoming widely used was one of the first, uh, synthetic colours. So the ability of. Humans to synthesize colour, which gave us the ability to have more non-toxic choices of color. I think, uh, even early on, because we’ve been such colour hounds, humans, used a lot of, uh, dangerous substances. I think in the natural world, the most beautiful colours are created most of the time from, uh, toxic substances.
So like lead, cadmium, uh, heavy metals create beautiful colours. So one of the most significant things in this century has been the development of, uh, non-toxic synthetics and manmade pigments. Then I kind of weighed into this in an interesting spot because. I do harness a lot, of pigments and a lot of components for my paint. And I also use man-made synthetics. So my view of it as a child of artists was that the primary focus of paint should be the quality and the safety for the user. So I.
My father, actually, my mother is in long-term care. She has Alzheimer’s and my father passed away when I was pretty young. I was 25. Before he passed away there was, there were blood tests done and collation therapy that was to remove heavy metals from his system. He had a really high load of heavy metals. And I definitely attribute that to the fact that he looking back through his paints, made choices to use those colours that came from those heavy metals. And I think that the term natural gets attributed to colours of the earth, these heavy metal colours. These are naturally occurring. So I think in pigments in paint, there’s an idea that oh, natural is healthy and good, and we want to get back to nature. And I think that’s where the awareness of the natural world and the power of what’s natural is not, I think we’re in a time when people want to be eco and natural. So there’s this kind of cartoon idea of mother earth. all things being from the earth as being, cartoon-ally healthy and edible when the true force of nature is that there are a lot of very, very powerful things that are not healthy.
Just to go back to your original question and answer it a bit more succinctly. Paint comes from so many sources and over time it’s come from so many sources. But what we’re really talking about is a substance that comes from plants or minerals. Or is manmade in a way that we would take a piece of iron and let it rust and then collect the rust to make a, a colour. Those processes create manmade and natural pigments. Really, what we’re talking about is a substance that is going to reflect light in a certain way to make your eyes see colour. And the further you get into all of that, it’s absolutely fascinating because the ability of a substance to reflect colour means. It’s absorbing into it, the opposite colour, and it’s rejecting the colour that you see.
So in actual effect that object, like say, a bright red tomato, it’s rejecting the red part of the light spectrum, but it’s absorbing into the green. So when in and of itself, the essence of that tomato really is a green tomato, but you look at it and you see a red tomato. And so there’s a lot of different ways to look at it. It’s no wonder people get confused about what kind of pigments or paints they’re using.
[00:12:56] Jennifer Chua: So it sounds like your father at least was really inspired in his art by the natural world. And I was wondering how inspired you are by the natural world or what you’ve taken from the natural world when creating beam paints.
[00:13:09] Anong Beam: Uh, A lot of how he approached making pigments was really from the natural world. These stones become these paints and I found a way to hybridize his approach. And in some instances, We have a set of natural colours that are, this is slate. This is graphite. This is limestone. And then we’ve been able to meld that with other synthetic colours. So we have really electric purples, really bright, hot reds, and they’re all non-toxic so that’s been really enjoyable. They’re certified. ASTM D4236, which is the standard for art supplies. They also meet LHAMA and the California prop 65. So we don’t use any of those listed anything under those regulations.
[00:14:09] Jennifer Chua: Can you remember an event maybe from childhood where you really feel like it’s the first time that you made this connection with pigments and paints really became aware of of the process of making paint in general?
[00:14:24] Anong Beam: I have a lot of those actually when I think back. I also have maybe synesthesia or something like that where I really am affected deeply by colour. And, um, one thing that really stands out, I think with, uh, being at a rock cut in Akash mountains is my dad. he’s filing a rock. He’s looking for something and that he finds one that’s not it, finds one. and it’s it. He files it off into my hand and he puts a little water on it. He rubs it into the palm of my hand. And then he shows me that, uh, this one, this is pigment because if we wash it off, it’s going to stay and everything else will just wash away. He was showing me how to discern between those., but I remember it feeling it, and seeing it, and having him explain it and really feeling excited and attached that, we found this amazing capability inside this little rock that looks so much like all the others, but it’s not.
[00:15:37] Jennifer Chua: it’s. almost magical. Isn’t it?
[00:15:39] Anong Beam: Oh, yeah, it is it’s. So every day I’m really amazed at what I get to do, even when there’s something like I can mix the same colour. Many times, but even when I take to say we’re making that an ultra Marine blue and I get to take all of this blue and put it into a great big bowl and sometimes I, I have other people who work with me and I’ll have to stop them and say, Jay, look at that. Wow, that’s a bowl of blue. It’s just so beautiful. So blue.
[00:16:14] Jennifer Chua: Is there anything that you learned from your mother and her artistic pursuits that has influenced your current business?
[00:16:22] Anong Beam: Yeah, she was really like, well, they both worked in watercolour and, but she was the one who probably, was always toting me around. Both in their own ways, they both kind of showed me ways to have an idea and explore it. Or have a possibility and pursue it.
Like, uh, this is avocado it’s very delicious and we can plant the seed and grow this. It becomes a tree and, being present and feeling authority to investigate how things are done and different ways to, to do them. They, they both were very much like that, but, directly from her, I think, making rose matter. That kind of came about from her. That was one of her favourite colors. And she was the one who introduced colour names to me, which I, I still really love because they’re so evocative they’re so, uh, they’re so personal and there is a standard to them, but then there’s also all exist variety. So, each paint-making house will have the rainbow of their colours and there are certain colours they’re kind of still. colours, like an ultra Marine, but if you get an ultra Marine in France then it’s Autremer, beyond the sea. Like you, you have different ways of saying the same thing to describe the same colour. One of the only colours that I’ve made as a, as an ink, that’s not like fast is Rose matter genuine.
It’s steeped out of the roots of the matter plant. And I made that for her because it was just to feel close to her because it was her favourite colour. And when I made it available to the public, I told people, we’re in an interesting time wherein ancient more ancient times, pigments had to be lightfast because there was no photographic ability. So. That art or that writing had to endure because there was no other way. It was the recording of an event. And now I think so many things are made to be consumed and recorded in a digital way that I think it could let us go back to exploring different kinds of colour, that change. and are more ephemeral or don’t have a century of life, but are very tender and beautiful in the moment. So the Rose matter ink, I made, it with paint on a peach, yellow, and as the ink absorbed oxygen returned the deeper pink. It was colour-changing on paper. And it was really, it was really amazing.
[00:19:33] Jennifer Chua: Do you remember the moment that you decided to take beam paints and actually create a business out of these traditions and this love that you have for paint?
[00:19:44] Anong Beam: So this is where things get business is personal. Especially I think for, for women, but definitely for me. I was in a difficult relationship where my partner had alcohol issues and it became really, um, became a dangerous situation for myself and my sons. Before that, and in the middle of that, I had started an art supply store. And it was very small and I only had a season of it, but in that small window of running this little store in a very rural area, people would come in and they loved watercolour and wanted to buy paints. And I felt like because it was such a tiny store and they wanted me to say that I made the paint like they would ask where it was from. And I’d say, well, it’s from China. It’s paint. This is the same paint like any other store. And they always seemed so disappointed that it came from somewhere else. And I remember at first thinking, where do you want me to say, like, you want me to make the paint too? And then that was after saying that, that I was like, I make the paint. I bet you I could make the paint. But at the time I think I voiced it out loud.. And somebody heard an old partner and he said, uh, whoops, you ridiculous? Oh, no, no. So it was kind of shelved and my life went through a lot of changes. We, we left that situation and I actually moved into my mom’s house on her couch with my two kids who are under, under five at the time.
[00:21:34] Jennifer Chua: That’s difficult.
[00:21:35] Anong Beam: Yeah. Yeah, it was, it was, but it was a totally clean slate and it was worse than a clean slate because it was a clean slate with debt. And, uh, I, I ended up being left as the responsible party for debt run-up in my name. I felt really free though, because all of a sudden, I didn’t have to take care of this really messy situation. I cleared it away and I was focused on myself and my kids. And I think at that point you do really think about family. I thought about when I was younger and I started making paint and making more and more paint and it was just so enjoyable. I felt fantastic. And that’s when I started an Instagram page about it. And I started offering paint for people and just kind of continued evolving from
[00:22:38] Jennifer Chua: it sounds almost like therapeutic. Really.
[00:22:42] Anong Beam: Yeah, it absolutely was. Yeah, absolutely. Because I wanted that connection to my family who my father had passed away. I didn’t have all older family to kind of shepherd me through this difficult point. So kind of meditating on that and sharing, I think, sharing with my kids, the actions and that the things that I used to do with my parents. And so we’d go out to little rock cuts. My boys would have their little rock hammers. We’d go exploring, looking at stones, looking at things that could be paintable.
[00:23:23] Jennifer Chua: So when people were coming into your store and noticing that the paints were from China and you were purchasing art supplies from, the places that one purchases art supplies for when stocking their shelves. When you began to look at these conventional artists’ paints, did you find anything surprising or what is the challenge with the traditional conventional artist’s paints that you’re finding on shelves?
[00:23:50] Anong Beam: So this was funny to get to this point where I was spending all of this time to create this paint. And it was so physical. It was so tangible. I was making this paint from these natural materials. And then when it came time to like to nest them and nestle them into a vessel or a container, all the containers are plastic and all of the boxes were, you know, it was just really, really ubiquitous in the market that art supplies are in plastic.
Plastic boxes, plastic sleeves, plastic mailing. And then I started as e-commerce. So all of the default packings is really plastic. And then this is where kind of having a, having a relationship. A lot of people, conscientious people through Instagram really affected me because I got to have that dialogue about materials and what I was doing with a wider audience.
And I remember somebody messaging me, Hey, I love what you’re doing. Do you think you could ever make a tape? And I remember getting that and it was the same feeling as like the art supply question, right? Like, do you make the paint? Make paint. That’s crazy. And, and I heard her say, oh, could you make tape? Because the most tape is just plastic. Isn’t it. And I was like, oh yeah, it is, I guess. And that’s when I started really looking more at like the things, the choices I was making as an e-commerce business and the packaging that we were using. And I really, again, got to look back to my mom and I thought about how she wrapped sandwiches. and use wax paper. she was in her twenties in the sixties, and she was part of the anti-Vietnam war movement. She immigrated to Canada in 1967 to protest the Vietnam war. She didn’t want to pay taxes to the industrial-military complex. You could tell, she talked about this alot. And she was always telling me stuff like, okay, well don’t use tinfoil Alcan? They made napalm!
And she would say, well, oh, plastic wrap? No! Like there was no plastic wrap in my house. I never learned how to use cling wrap until I was like, in my thirties. I couldn’t really ever cling wrap anything properly. So she really brought those more strident values of being responsible with your, your choices and personal ethical responsibility.
[00:26:46] Jennifer Chua: How are your paints packaged? What’s your packaging look like?
[00:26:51] Anong Beam: Our packaging is continually evolving to meet our needs and the customer’s needs. And the, now that we’ve actually, we’ve really grown and developed quite a lot the past few years. So we manufactured larger volumes of paint. And, um, now you’ll find our paints wrapped either in a sheet of beeswax cotton.
This is actually an interesting evolution I’m doing right now. This was the first idea that instead of a plastic cap pan that paint would go inside a piece of wax canvas, and that would be folded in a certain way and have a tie. So that was the first thing. And this struck such a chord with people.
Really. It was really amazing to me, how well received this idea. And then moving forward to now where changing this idea a bit to be the same structure. But what happened was, is we started doing business with indigo, indigo books and music, which is a big chain here in Canada. And one of the requirements to work with them is that you have to sign an affidavit attesting to the sourcing of cotton. So there’s this whole political situation in China and this kind of alerted me to that because it was not on my radar at all. And then I found that it was really. I could say yes. And I did say yes. Um, I agreed to that, but I also found that it is practically impossible to really be sure, or you could ask and people would say, but I wasn’t satisfied with my degree of understanding of the supply chain of cotton.
And then I started kind of thinking about, well, the. The cost of cotton, fresh cotton, new cotton is, is quite high as far as why don’t use land use and pesticides. So
we’re shifting now to paper and it’s done in the same way. It’s the same structure, the same look, but instead of a square of cotton with wax.
It’s a handmade paper and the handmade paper is made out of cotton. So it’s still a hundred percent cotton, but now the cotton comes from St. Alma preparatory in Montreal, and they obtain skids of offcuts from the textile industry. So when a fabric, when a t-shirt company, Has all the little off-cuts that can’t be used, they get bundled up into a big skids of fabric.
Those offcuts get repurposed and sent to Saint-Armand where they use the cotton linen, all the different fabrics, and they turn that into artists’ paper. So I’m really, really excited to be, changing again. It was also, I had a lot of nerves about telling people because I didn’t want to like throw a bunch of shade on cotton users. Right? Like, I’m not saying it’s bad to use cotton. I am also using beeswax, I, became a beekeeper in the past few years and I became aware of more of how. How or beeswax is like how little beeswax bees actually make, when they do honey, they make so much more honey or relatively very small amounts of beeswax.
And we had had a really difficult year. I lost a lot of beehives, it’s been challenging. I had a tough time talking with our suppliers of beeswax and kind of hearing them trying to make an order for the same amount as last year. And they were really like, I don’t know. And there was a lot of stress there, so I still did reorder. We still do use beeswax, but we’re trying to, we’re just trying to diversify as far as different ways that we can make so that we can adjust. And, uh, without saying using beeswax is bad. We just want to have a lot of different tools, especially with supply chains in the past year and what that looks like
[00:31:38] Jennifer Chua: When you go on to Indigo’s website and you look for your products, you see these beautiful wood pallets. Can you explain what that is and how you came up with the idea to use wood?
[00:31:50] Anong Beam: So this whole process of my leaving to my mother’s house with the kids and, reimagining life, and during that time I meet my boyfriend and we actually go on our first date to a quarry. Look at, to look at rocks and things, and he runs a forestry operation. So he gives me a space to develop my business. he gives me a garage, 16 by 20 a small car garage, he clears it out and he says, okay, go ahead. And so I’m making paint inside of like in this quiet spot, in the middle of a working forestry operation. So there are massive machines rolling past me every day, six-foot-tall tires going by the window, excavators, like large machines.
And along with that, when the hum of the work is done, then large stacks of, wood that go to keep people’s houses, fire, fuelwood, different wood products. And I find myself so attracted to all of the offcuts and all of the small pieces, the sideways cut pieces, things that just end up, uh, different into the waste stream.
So I ended up, um, Collecting these going around the yard after hours and collecting all the offcut pieces. And then I experiment with different ways that I can put them in offcuts. And eventually, it becomes an agreed-on partnership between our two businesses. And now I subcontract wood production to Corbiere Lumber. Which is owned by my boyfriend. And his company, they produce all of our pallets out of their off-cuts from that forestry business. So it’s been really a really rewarding fight because it’s, it’s fun to work with people who are really passionate about their materials. They’re really passionate about their product and creative enough to look at the waste stream.
I also watched you on Instagram live a little while ago, which was great. You have a really great connection to your community. And you were speaking about language, changing the language on your new packaging.
When I started my business, It was really important to me to name all of the paints in my language, which is Ojibwe. My dad went to a residential school at the Spanish school for boys and he’s a survivor, experienced a lot of abuse. And also people say lost their language like that. He lost his language. It sounds so passive. Like you misplaced it on a walk and. For a child to speak a language and go be forced to go somewhere, to be reconditioned, to have that bridge or moved from them that they are so afraid and fearful that they cannot speak it. Even later in adults, there’s so much abuse and trauma there, but anyway, language initiatives, I’ve have been really close to my heart.
And one of the reasons why I wanted it to use the language is because it’s hard to encounter it anywhere. English is the dominant, it’s the dominant language of our times, and it’s really, it’s prevalent everywhere. And I wanted to give our language a spot to be to be first. So all of our labels will be labelled with the color name, you know, in Ojibwe first, and then the English name underneath. And that was part of the shift to the paper wrappers because it enabled us instead of using wax cloth ties to use water, activated paper, tape printed labels, to include a lot more information per item.
[00:36:14] Jennifer Chua: Do you have a favourite color name?
[00:36:18] Anong Beam: It, it changes all the time. I’m a painter too. So my favourite painting, it’s always whatever the last one was. And I just laugh about that because I’ll start another one. And then when I think, oh, that’s my favourite painting. Fast forward six months. Well, this is my favourite and it’s kind of like that with colour names too. My most recent favourite is one of our most recent colours wet grizzly.
[00:36:47] Jennifer Chua: So it’s clear that tradition is important to you with putting Ojibwe on the packaging. You’re honouring your father’s legacy, really with the paint-making process, you are showing your children the merits of entrepreneurship, you are creating like low waste products. Really? You’re doing a lot in terms of sustainability. What part of all of the impact that you’re making means the most to you? Really
[00:37:14] Anong Beam: In a personal enjoyment level, I, I really enjoy, uh, approaching the waste stream and finding possibilities. I actually some of the key ingredients that we use in all of the paints are reclaimed from the waste stream of quarries. And there’s like an indigenous quarry on the west end of Manitoulin that captures different things that are actually hazardous in their workflow because they get wet and slippery, but they capture that moves them out of the way for us. Being able to interact with industry in that way, especially as, as a woman, mom, you walk into the place with all the big machines and talk to people and materials and to have conversations like that, that’s been really enjoyable, but also because I’m being offered a job at a pivotal moment in my life, gave me such stability. It’s really important to me and be able to offer employment to people who need flexible, flexible employment, especially here in M’Chigeeng. We are on Manitoulin island. There aren’t just a lot of jobs and most jobs are really heavy heavy industry or construction. They’re not really ideal for working moms or single moms. People with disabilities. So I’m happy to, to fill in there and, and design it. Like, I didn’t really realize it at the time, but being a very flexible employer has meant that we we’ve been able to withstand the pandemic, I think in better shape than other companies that have more rigid employment. So we’ve split our production over four locations. So having it split like that meant that everybody could have observed that corporate protocols and feel safe about going to work where they were working. It also meant that, uh, a lot of our in who had childcare issues that arise out of the pandemic, we’re able to flex the times that they came into different locations to work. So it’s been, it’s been good like that. I want to, I want to be able to grow our company that way to be able to be a stronger employer
[00:39:55] Jennifer Chua: When you’re looking back at all of the impacts that you’ve created, and when you’re looking around you and seeing other brands that are doing really interesting things with waste, for example, how hopeful are you for the future?
[00:40:11] Anong Beam: I am really hopeful for the future. I think, um, I think part of this was the fact that I had young kids. At this juncture and they’re coming back from school with concerns about the environment. Concerns about global warming and it’s has been really great to me to be able to tell them this is what we’re doing about it in our corner. We’re responsible for making things, and these are our choices and we can be responsible down to this, this, minute level.
And we can look for other companies who are that responsible and choose that. That definitely comes from my mom. So being able to share that with my kids and seeing them make choices like that and feel empowered to be conscious consumers.
It’s my absolute joy to design and imagine new ways of presenting our product. But the core strength of it is the fact that, uh, our main goal is to make the best paint in the world and in terms of performance and in terms of its respect for the health of our users and people who try our product, their children. Then the environment, that it’s responsible, but the bottom line is when you use our paint, we want you to be really blown away. Oh, that blue, there is so much blue in that blue. So I’m always working on recipes to find different ways to compact and get bluer in the blue also make sure that it really outperforms.
[00:42:06] Jennifer Chua: If you want to learn more about Anong and her plastic-free paints handcrafted from harvested pigments and wildflower, honey. Visit beampaints.com. Looking to support a hundred percent indigenous-owned business? You can purchase Anong’s beautifully vibrant paint stones direct or through independent art supply stores across Canada. You can follow along with Anong and be inspired by a life full of colour on Facebook or Instagram at beam paints.