Donna Isham’s painting practice incorporates both figurative and AbEx bodies of work which are created in the continuum of a tandem conversation about beauty, energy, emotion, color theory and gesture. While her abstract compositions are balanced by chromatic foundations and affecting experience, her figures and portraits are also interrupted, inflected and animated by incursions of abstraction. Rather than idealizations, her figures thus reflect the profound universe of tolerance and empathy for what she calls the “perfect imperfection” of true female beauty and power. Her current exhibition opened in March at GDCA, and remains installed through April.

L.A. WEEKLY: When did you first know you were an artist? 

DONNA ISHAM: I’ve always been an artist, even at 4 years old I would sit and draw pictures of illustrations from books for hours, and they were actually quite good. Crayons and pencils were my best friends. I thought everyone had that skill, it wasn’t until I got older that I realized it was a gift. My “fear of any comment” virtually paralyzed my true purpose to create beauty and art. Through soul searching, I finally found the courage to be vulnerable enough to put my art out into the world. Several years ago, I told my family I needed to speak with them, begging them not to say a word, and proceeded to show them work (drawings, illustrations, paintings) I had created over the years (and carefully hid when we moved from home to home…) They were like What the F#*@^%??? They gave me the confidence to be bold and use my talent to its fullest. With a little support from my friends and family, and lots of encouragement, I began showing my work at gallery installations. Since then the floodgates have opened and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Donna Isham, Moondance, 2020

What is your short answer to people who ask what your work is about? 

My work explores both figurative abstract and abstract expressionism. The figurative is  primarily women, the scope of internal emotions and the complexities of being a woman today, perfect imperfection, raw, naked and bold. Sensual use of color and paint. I think this series opens the conversation of what it means to be a woman in today’s world — to live, to love and to express oneself fully with confidence and power. My abstracts reflect emotion and motion in their creation and are an invitation for viewers to participate. The movements on the canvas are gestural, visceral and alive, utilizing strong brush strokes, bold color, thick application of paint, and beautifully sexualized subject matter.

What would you be doing if you weren’t an artist?

If I wasn’t an artist, I would still be creating or producing in other arenas. My other passion is human rights where I am currently involved and act as the president of Artists for Human Rights Foundation. I am committed to anything that adds more understanding, beauty and compassion to the world is what I would see myself doing.

Donna Isham at GDCA

Did you go to art school? Why/Why not?

I didn’t go to art school, my painting arose out of my work in fashion and interior design. Even though I had drawn and painted my entire life, however once I went to college I focused my  time studying film and art history. I lacked the confidence to consider myself as a fine artist. Instead I became very successful as a costume designer and stylist. But my passion has always been in the arts. I think we are all instilled with the ability to be an artist and if we tap into that,  dedicate the time to practice our craft, and study the masters of previous generations, then magic can happen.

Why do you live and work in L.A., and not elsewhere?

I was born and raised in Studio City. A true Valley Girl! I moved to Northern California to attend UC Berkeley and had no intentions of ever moving back to Southern California. I soon realized that I missed Los Angeles and all it has to offer so I moved back. I have since lived all over Los Angeles from Santa Monica, to Silver Lake to Benedict Canyon to Calabasas. Now back to the Valley, full circle!

I’ve been very fortunate to travel the world and experience a multitude of different cultures. There are very few cities on this planet that have such a diverse culture and community as Los Angeles, spanning art, film and TV, and music. You can take an hour-long drive in any direction and you can hit a different landscape, from downtown cityscape to beautiful mountains or my personal favorite, the beach. I love going with my family and dogs to Malibu and taking walks on the sand. There are few places in the world where you can so easily experience all these things. L.A. is and will always be home.

Donna Isham, Body Proof, acrylic and oil crayon on canvas, 2019

When was your first show?

The first time I ever showed my work It was a group show two years ago at the GDCA Gallery, Los Angeles.

When is/was your current/most recent/next show?

My most recent show is my first solo exhibition, also at the Gloria Delson Contemporary Art Gallery in downtown Los Angeles, March 7 – April 30. My next shows are DAC Contemporary Gallery, Miami Florida, April – May 2020; Steiner Fine Art Gallery, Vienna, Austria, June 22 – July 18, 2020; Susan Hostetler Gallery, Nantucket, Massachusetts, July 2020.

What artist living or dead would you most like to show with?

Great question. Living artists I would love to show with are Cecily Brown, Tracey Emin, and Jenny Saville as they each create vivid, atmospheric representations of faces and bodies. They are courageous female artists that help bring strength to women. Dead — Willem de Kooning, Matisse and Cezanne because of their energetic brushwork and sensual use of color and paint. I love their use of strong gestural motion and sensitivity. Each broke conventional molds of what painting and subjects should represent in search of a more honest and freer expression.

Do you listen to music while you work? If so what?

Yes and no. When I listen to music I often play jazz playlists which include my husband, Mark Isham. I love that jazz lets my mind wander which allows my creative energy to surge. I also love French cafe music, Buddha-bar is fabulous. Sometimes I prefer quiet, alone with all my paints and brushes and palette knives and my imagination. In  a very busy household with five dogs, a bunch of kids and a husband who is a musical composer with a full studio in the house, I can say that those moments are extremely rare. So I take them whenever I can get them!

Website and social media handles, please!


Donna Isham, Strangers Passing By Seem Familiar, oil, cold wax and oil crayon on canvas, 2020

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