Just weeks before the birth of her son, Ashland artist Leah Fanning Mebane was given a huge opportunity: complete 25 of her abstract paintings for a one-woman show at Medford's Rogue Gallery. But a big, red flag flew up in her face: Commercial paints can be toxic, a big no-no for a pregnant woman and the babe growing inside her.
How, wondered Mebane, were paints made before modern chemistry? Not in a laboratory, surely. Paint ingredients had to come from — where else? — nature. With her baby in her womb and a trowel in her hand, Mebane started digging up variously pigmented clays she found in streambeds and road cuts from the Applegate Valley to Highway 66.
Back home, with a mortar and pestle, Mebane ground all her clays to fine powders. Mixing the pigments with organic walnut oil, she made enough paint to complete everything for her show.
Then a light bulb went on in Mebane's head: This paint could be a hit. Parents would love it. Artists would want it. The environment needs it. For Mebane, her recipe also could mean income without putting her son in day care — an all-around win.
"I wanted to make the safest paint product on the market," says Mebane, who had her products tested by a toxicologist. "These paints are safe for you, safe for your children and safe for the planet."
In an article for Artists & Illustrators magazine, Mebane writes that she used to have headaches and allergic reactions from the toxins in her studio.
"Lead, mercury, cobalt, arsenic, chromium, cadmium and barium," explains Mebane, have been found in a range of oil paints.