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B. NEW YORK, 1927

Born in 1927 in New York, Sheila Isham pursued a highly original approach to abstract painting that drew on diverse art movements and cultural philosophies such as Russian avant-gardism, the Washington Color School, ancient Chinese calligraphy, Haitian animism, and Hindu and Buddhist tantric practices. This wide range of influences reflects Isham’s journeys around the world with her husband, Heyward Isham—a career Foreign Service officer who later served as Ambassador to Haiti. After studying at the University of Geneva and Bryn Mawr College, Isham became the first American citizen to be accepted to the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, where she trained with Die Brücke artists such as Max Pechstein and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Relocating to Moscow in 1955, Isham was exposed to the work of Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, and other Russian avant-garde figures. Returning to the United States in 1957, Isham developed her practice in Washington, D.C. and New York before moving to Hong Kong in 1962 where she studied calligraphy with the master Feng Kanghou. She completed her arc of travels in Paris in the mid-1970s before settling in Sagaponack, New York in 1978. 

At her home and studio in the Hamptons, Isham embraced daring techniques to evoke her environs. The artist described her move to the East End as one that pulled her closer to nature: “I liked the feeling of earth and sea and sky. … The way the sky interacts with the earth and how the sea plays a role. It’s always there, that interplay between the three.” Combing her beachy surroundings, Isham would hold seaweed, sponges, and other substances against canvas, using an airbrush to spray acrylic paint around them. This approach resulted in dynamic storms of color across the surface of her light-filled canvases that are highly spiritual and meditative in essence. 

Isham has been the subject of solo exhibitions at institutions such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. (1961; 1981); Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo (1974; 1981); The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg (2004); and the National Museum for Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C. (2005). Isham is represented in public collections including The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill; Baltimore Museum of Art; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, among others. Her work will be presented in the upcoming solo show Sheila Isham: Women of Jefferson Place (October–December, 2022) at the Cody Gallery, Marymount University, Arlington.

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