Q&A | Donna Isham

by Morgan Vickery

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Southern California native, Donna Isham, is a rising artist whose strokes reflect both memory and emotion. While her artistry was self-discovered at a young age, her pursuit for solo creative endeavors only came to fruition in recent years. Inviting vulnerability to the table, Donna finally allows her work to be displayed publicly, creating a frenzy of support and fans. 

Now embracing her path, Isham has accomplished four series, highlighting the female form, injustice, and individuality. We spoke with Donna, and visited her Malibu studio to discuss her journey, works and series, and future projects.

Tell us about your journey.

I grew up in Southern California – the quintessential Valley Girl. I’m on a career that I tried to create in spite of myself since my youth. What I did have was a very traditional upbringing – walking to school, Girl Scouts, hanging out at the park with friends and spending weekends at Zuma Beach in Malibu. But I think I always saw the world slightly askew. Colors were more vibrant, the shake of leaves on the trees, the pop music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. While my parents always admired my artwork there was never any encouragement to pursue my passion as a career. There was not a female role model in sight that did anything but be a wife and mother. Not that that isn’t a worthy pursuit – and in fact, I’m married to an amazingly talented husband and we have 4 children – but I wanted more.  

Ironically, my self invalidation as an artist led me to the fashion and entertainment industries.   I could use my “talent” but not really be vulnerable. Not in the way I feel as an artist now. I could work as part of a group, and when I drew illustrations of costumes or created looks for clients, only the director had to see them. But it is this view of life from theatrics to beauty to vulnerability to the Southern California patina that fuels my work today.

When did you embrace your artistry?

I don’t think anyone decides to become an artist. It’s intuitive, part of who I am. I’ve always been an artist. I was drawing and painting from the time I could pick up crayons and paint as a child. That’s what I did for fun. It was a skill that I thought everyone had so I didn’t think much about it. I could look at a picture or a scene and replicate it. Whether costume designing, interior designing, fashion styling or production designing, I’ve always been a visual artist.

But it was only a few years ago, through much personal angst and spiritual discovery, that I began to paint as a professional and timidly begin to show my work to my family and friends. I had to overcome my fears (at that time unbridled terror) and allow the very personal musings of an artist to go out into the world. I had to turn my “fears” into the opposite vector of courage, and use that energy to fuel my work. Mind you, I still need to do that on a daily basis.  

You once said that you paint from a place of freedom, pulling upon memories and emotions. Could you give me an example where you used that in your work?

I get inspiration from everywhere. It could be a wonderful book, a great TV show, or a film; a walk on the beach or the smell of crisp air. I love to travel and have been fortunate enough to see many amazing places across the world. I pull upon and draw from those memories of color in these places. My painting January, for example, is the color of Aspen when it snows against the vibrant colors on the mountains. Nada and Relja is inspired from my trip to Paris and seeing the loving locks piled on the bridges, remnants of star crossed lovers and hopes of a passionate embrace. 

The emotions I experienced when I met with enslaved women in India and saw the devastating poverty in Roatan, Honduras, and the undying courage these people show inspired Solitude in Blue. Pain and hardships paired with immensely strong resolve also inspired my WMN series, particularly St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg (2018)

St. Petersburg (2018)

I would say my entire body of figurative work speaks to the multiple layers of both memories and emotions that I feel women must journey through, from strength to passion, from nurturing caregivers to independent free thinkers and leaders. Historically, the female form was painted through the lens of the male gaze. These pieces are painted from a female gaze, and oftentimes the subject has as much to say to the viewer, as the viewer might comment about the subject. My strokes, my palette, the right to remain or recede from the foreground – these all invite the dialogue.  

The reference to the female form is very noticeable, but fashion references can seem less obvious to the viewer.

I think my intense love of color, shape, form, and texture is a direct response to my earlier roots in fashion. Fashion is art, and the work that is done in that area is amazing. I’m in love with what Alessandro Michele is creating at Gucci right now and what the team there is doing with the interplay of palettes and textures.

When you paint, do you plan or improvise?

I do both. Often when I work on my paintings it’s very gestural and action-oriented. The motion and fluidity come from strokes done with a directed abandon. It is really evident in my abstract work. It is a conversation with me and the canvas and that dialogue back-and-forth – adding and subtracting, covering and exposing, layering with brushes and then with palette knives. I always have a plan, a color palette, a tone, a mood that I begin with, and then I allow the improvisation of work to emerge from that beginning. My joy comes from the discovery of what is generated. That makes my execution fresh and, hopefully, engaging. My figurative abstract works are more planned, in that I have an idea of who I am going to paint and where they will live on the canvas. Yet, as my work evolves, I use a lot of my abstract techniques to play and hide and reveal aspects of my subject. Often there is a blur between figure and ground and commingling of focus which hopefully allows the viewer to imbue their own thoughts and feelings into the work. It engages the viewer as a participant in the conversation.  

Who are your favorite artists of the past and current moment? 

I am absolutely inspired by the work of others. My historical roots come from Post-Impressionist works of Cézanne and Matisse, and the paintings of German Expressionist Emil Nolde. The book Art in Time by Phaidon states, “They employed strong contrasting colors and distorted forms to reflect the tension and anxiety of living as an emotional individual in the mechanized modern world and to affect their audiences on a psychological level.” I hope to do just that in my own work. I am a huge fan of Egon Schiele, Willem de Kooning, and Richard Diebenkorn. I recently went to Frieze NY and got to see Tracey Emin’s work in person for the first time. I also love the work of Jenny Saville. Both of these female artists turn the female gaze towards nudes and figuration in a way that is so creative and engaging.

What’s your message as an artist?

The message is one of inspiration and hope, of compassion and of courage to be oneself. To create and persist against any adversity. To relish the uniqueness and individuality of people.  The world is highly technological and moving further into a digital revolution with every passing day. And while that’s beneficial on many levels it is also dehumanizing. My work hopes to comment on that inhumanity and bring back the human elements – both its fragility and resilience, its compassion and struggle, its powerlessness and triumph, it’s muted quiet and vibrant passion for life.

What’s next?

I am working on some sculptural ideas that have been rolling around in my mind for a while in collaboration with my husband, Mark Isham. I haven’t done many sculptural works before so this will be a huge (and vulnerable) undertaking. We’re planning on bringing sound and musical elements together with painted sculptures.  

I want to continue to create work that forces us to view women from a female gaze and allows them their place in society that is truly deserved. I want my work to resound in the hearts and homes of collectors that conceive art to be powerful, human, and provocative – emotionally connective and touching.


Photography by: Devin Kasparian