Courage to Make a Mark: Donna Isham’s Bold Painterly Gestures

FEMME floor work, acrylic on canvas, 2017.


In our current, hyper-digitized world, the opportunities to advertise our lives online via staged selfies or carefully calculated vacation photos abound, providing the illusion of connectedness and bared personas. Most of our interactions--from paying bills to ordering a pizza--happen via an app. But lingering behind these images are deeper questions yearning for answers: how much of this is real? Are these social media-filtered communities truly enriching? Do we really know each other--ourselves--any better because of them? Can we really be ourselves? The more digital our potential interactions become, is it the more analog that we crave? 

Which brings us to Art, with a capital A. If the seemingly endless lines to enter the Broad Museum in Los Angeles are any guide, our collective craving for the tangible, the handmade remains stronger than ever. Though many a museum-goer mediates their experience by way of selfies recorded in social media, the fact that there is no substitute for the real thing is undeniable. Is it in the handmade, the touched surface that we truly find our collective humanity? The Los Angeles-based painter Donna Isham thinks so and her rich and exuberant paintings embody the vulnerabilities of existence and an innate, collective desire to see our experiences as humans in the rendered mark.

Patchwork, acrylic on canvas. 

One of the most striking facets of experiencing Donna Isham’s abstract paintings is the texturedness, made so in layers of paint, each painting eliciting an almost audible sensory directive: these things are tangible. Like the levels of one’s psyche, these surfaces alone call attention to the depths of consciousness we each carry; where a selfie captured on an iPhone creates a parking lot of sorts for our view stuck at the surface, Isham’s work creates an open, limitless highway that reminds of the multitudes that make us human and individuals. In this way, there is a most satisfying connection created between viewer and artist; an irresistible invitation into a deeper conversation, where rich strokes of yellows layered over reds and oranges, as in Patchwork, become guttural confessions, energetic, emotional pronouncements of one’s existence and in viewing them, the viewer, too, becomes an integral part of the moment.

Cleo, acrylic on canvas.

Isham’s path to painting is one she describes as initially fraught with anxiety and self-doubt; she had always wanted to be an artist, but kept the desire and her drawing practice quiet while leading large businesses for much of her career. She credits her kids with bringing her work into a larger cultural conversation by framing pieces and displaying them around the house. In this, she says, she started to find the confidence, the satisfying release and accompanying exhilaration that comes when one exposes their deepest feelings to others -- in this case, as made manifest in paint. Indeed, as we talk, Isham’s passion for paint is inherently tied to the concept of courage: in finding her own to pursue and express her artistic voice, she’s become more ardent in her dedication to create work that inspires it in others as well: courage to speak up, to speak the truth, to find compassion, to look for opportunities to love. Her figurative work, no less bold or expressive than the abstract, when viewed together, becomes another kind of patchwork, revelatory of the female human experience through a female lens. Collectively titled Femme, we see the female nude rendered in ways that feel illuminative rather than exploitative. In Cleo, the subject looks back at us, with a seemingly worried expression, asking us to listen. This courage on display invites our own responses: it’s hard to see vulnerability so purely depicted and not think of one’s own. In other words, these works remind us of our own humanity, inspiring empathic reflection of our own roles in society.

FEMME Melancholy of Her Power, acrylic on canvas, 36" x 48".

Taken as a whole, Isham’s work becomes a catalogue of the human experience that exists outside of any time, space or cultural moment: rather, their timelessness presents a collective picture of humans in emotional, passionate, and earnest stances that we can all relate to, that bind us as a species and not as mere things to be labeled. We are reminded of how powerful the desire to leave a human mark is, how innate it is in all of us to want to receive its message. And in doing so, there’s solace in seeing another’s experience on display, reminders that we’re all struggling to find our voice, love each other, and share a peaceful world. No social media platform can ever reveal so much about the true purposes of existence in such elegant and profound ways as Isham’s work does. Walking away, one feels the courage conveyed through the medium of paint: Isham’s work speaks loudly and inspires us to do the same, to keep this conversation going, to veer away from the surface and dive into the deep, powerful and personal waters of the human experience. WM


Megan Reed

Megan Reed is a writer and fine artist based in Los Angeles, California.

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