Carl Beam (1943–2005) was born Carl Edward Migwans at the Ojibways of West Bay Reserve (now renamed the M'Chigeeng First Nation) on Manitoulin Island, Ontario.
Beam attended the Garnier Residential School from age 10 to 18. After working at several trades-based jobs, including in the construction of parts of the Toronto Subway system, Beam moved in the early 1970s to attend the Kootenay School of Art, completing his BFA at the University of Victoria in 1974. He started a graduate degree at the University of Alberta in 1975, but returned to Ontario after only a year due to a dispute over his thesis on Indigenous art.
In 1980, he moved to New Mexico for three years with his second wife, Ann Beam. His time in New Mexico reinvigorating his ceramic practice. He relocated to Peterborough, Ontario, in 1984, where he lived until moving back to Manitoulin Island in 1992. When he returned to Ontario, he concentrated on paintings, prints, and assemblages. A major development in his work was the incorporation of photo-transfers and multi-layered compositions.
In 1986, he became the first Indigenous artist to be collected by the National Gallery of Canada. He received the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2005, the same year of his death. In 2011, the National Gallery of Canada produced a posthumous retrospective of his work that travelled across Canada.