by Isobel Harry
M’CHIGEENG—An important exhibition of the art of Anong Migwans Beam has travelled from Campbell House in Toronto, where it was first shown in the fall of 2020, and the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, to the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation (OCF) in M’Chigeeng First Nation.
Entitled ‘Anong Migwans Beam at Campbell House,’ and featuring large-scale oil paintings among a few smaller ones and several watercolours, the original exhibition in Toronto was also titled ‘Gathering Colour,’ acknowledging the artist’s use of natural elements to make her own oil paints in her M’Chigeeng studio—Beam Paints—that are now sold internationally.
To enter the soaring atrium of the OCF is always an uplifting experience, now enhanced by Ms. Beam’s large canvases encircling the room and spilling into the museum space, oozing organic lushness, richly depicting flora and fauna that almost seem alive in the luxuriant forest air.
It was opening night last week, and elder and language instructor Leona Nahwegahbow offered a prayer of thanks to the Creator “for having Anong Migwans Beam bring her talents to this place.”
Touring the exhibit with the artist, it quickly becomes apparent that the landscapes are much more than views of the surrounding scenery. Two of the paintings feature a kind of quintessential cottage reflected in a lake, steeped in nostalgia for easier times, signifying being at one with the wilderness, a simple cozy cabin the only thing between you and the vast, mysterious country beyond.
But the artist imbues more layers of meaning to the paintings by virtue of her background and personal experience. The cottage is taken from a painting by renowned Scottish Canadian painter Peter Doig, an artist Ms. Beam greatly admires, entitled ‘Camp Forestia.’ She offers an homage to him: “It’s an honorific, a tip of the hat to an artist who has influenced me.”
But there’s more to it still. As the daughter of internationally recognized artists Carl Beam and Ann Beam, one who became acquainted early with her parents’ lives as full-time artists, she notes that, “My father wouldn’t just paint landscapes because he did not experience them as just beautiful landscapes. I didn’t have the sorts of experiences where there was a cottage involved; I always wondered what they looked like and what people did there because what I saw were ‘No Trespassing’ signs.
“Peter Doig’s cottage looks very familiar, it looks like how Canada has been represented in so many Canadian landscape paintings, but only to certain Canadians. I have no real experience with those landscapes. Now I really appreciate that I can interact with them however I want!”
‘Camp Cadillac’ (2018) features not only the Doig cottage but a monstrous car, a 1970s Cadillac, in the foreground. “Cars have most often been painted by men – horses, cars, boats, those were their territory. Painting a car is very particular, like painting a person; the car is a metaphor – for speed, mobility, status – like the cottage is a metaphor representing an intergenerational experience. The painting is framing the myth.”
‘Ghost Moose and Camp’ (2016) shows the cottage again dominating the scene, with a small white moose in the foreground, another icon of Canadiana, disappearing behind a suspect red cloud of dust.
There is something somewhat ominous in the paintings – the colours of ‘Red Mangrove’ (2016), ‘Mountain Lake’ (2018) and ‘Beaver Dam Overflowing’ (2018) a little unreal and foreboding, darkness on the periphery, like a storm encroaching.
Ms. Beam also finds inspiration in the works of Edvard Munch, Tom Thomson and Nancy Friedland. ‘Mennonite Barn, Spring Bay’ (2020), resembles a piece of American Gothic, but with a riot of colour and feeling; there’s a pheasant, there’s a speeding vintage car, and a frog hiding in the grass. It’s all so bright and dripping with colour, we want to be in that car racing toward the centre, perhaps recapturing a sentiment we didn’t know we had.
The scenes are not only beautiful but seem also to remind of the reality of environmental threats, of climate crisis, that in fact it is no longer possible to speed along oblivious, while at the same time depicting nostalgia for a world that can never be reclaimed.
Ms. Beam explains that the underlay on this painting is the red of the big, prosperous-looking barn; she just let the underlay come through. “I find the red underlay really does something to the energy of the piece. That’s the kind of fun I have!” laughs the artist.
Using all her own handmade paints in a project for the first time, the artist feels “an incredible circuity to making paint from rocks from Baie Fine near Killarney, then painting that same scene with those rocks that are now paint!”
In her artist’s statement, Anong Migwans Beam adds: “These paintings are emerging to reclaim images of where I live, and to relate them back to me. It’s strange to live somewhere and be of a place so fundamentally, but seeing it depicted only in a way that isolates my culture…. It is just immensely pleasurable to rectify this even if it is just in my paint-world.”
‘Anong Migwans Beam at Campbell House’ is on until September 24 at the OCF, 15 Hwy 551, M’Chigeeng. Hours are Monday to Friday, 8:30 am to 4 pm; Saturday, 10 am to 2 pm. Admission by donation.