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Pure pigments

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.

Now, Mebane sells two kits. One for kids, using milk protein, which is water-soluble, making for fast and easy cleanup. Older folks can get a kit with walnut oil-based paints. Six colors come in each kit: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and brown, plus mixing instructions and a booklet full of eco-painting practices.

The Children's Earth Paint Kit costs $29.95, and the Earth Oil Paint Kit goes for $39.95. "Each pigment packet can make about the equivalent of a tube of paint," says Mebane, "and considering the price of a tube, it's usually equal if not more affordable."

Less than a year old, Earth Paints is growing, and Mebane still has plenty of time for her son, Django.

"If things continue the way they are," says Mebane, "I expect to be making a living from it in a year."

Mebane has her paints on shelves in Ashland, but most of her sales are online.

"Social media have really helped spread the word." says Mebane. "I send the kits to blogs, and the reviews really inform people about the paints."

What about the durability of her paints? "Well, they're not going to crumble off the paper like people think," says Mebane. "Earth minerals like these are the reason we still have paintings from people like da Vinci.

"People used to paint their barns red with the same iron oxide I'm using. A lot of those barns are still red," says Mebane. "It's a 100,000-year-old tradition that only began to slip away within the last 100 years and the use of petroleum-based chemicals in paints."

Mebane is expanding her line of eco-friendly art supplies with a natural-dye kit for Easter eggs, clothes and other uses.

"I'm using the color from things like beets and carrots."

Mebane also teaches weekly art classes for children.

"Parents are eager to get kids away from toxins in commercial paints," says Mebane. "I use the Earth Paints in my classes."

"They're the only paints I would give him," says mom Lapis Emerson. "Kids put paint in their mouths all the time."

Heidi Weeda, whose daughter uses the paints, says, "She had a rainbow hairdo for days because I bought cheapo paint that wasn't water-soluble. It was all over her face and skin, too. I have no idea how much got in her mouth and pores. But this is awesome. There's no danger."

For information, see www.fanningart.com/earth-paints.

Colin Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Email him at colinadarling@gmail.com.

Leah Fanning Mebane crushes orange earth pigments that she uses to make Earth Paint. Julia Moore photo - Photos by Julia Moore