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Sheila Isham, 96, Widely Shown Artist

Thu, 04/25/2024 - 19:30

Sheila Isham, an artist whose work had been shown in gallery and museum exhibitions around the world, died of pneumonia in Manhattan on April 9. She was 96.

Ms. Isham lived in Sagaponack for over 50 years and had a painting studio in Southampton. Her paintings, lithographs, etchings, and collages, which veered from the abstract to the figurative, are in the collections of institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Library of Congress, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Gallery, Guild Hall in East Hampton, and the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill.

She had solo shows at the Smithsonian, the Corcoran Gallery, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the Hermitage Museum in Moscow, among other venues.

Her husband, Heyward Isham, was a foreign service officer, and her art was deeply influenced by her time overseas. “Tracing the routes of her husband’s career, Isham moved fluidly between Washington, D.C., Berlin, Moscow, Hong Kong, Paris, Haiti, and New Delhi, and was given access to special collections, paintings that otherwise were not on public view, and introductions to master teachers,” Patricia L. Lewy, director of the Sheila Isham Archives, wrote on the artist’s website.

In a 2005 profile in The East Hampton Star, Ms. Isham reflected on how her painting had changed in Haiti, for example, going from “deep color into white pastel abstraction — the sun was powerful — into a void before a shift back to tropical colors.”

Her art drew inspiration from Chinese calligraphy, Haitian rituals, and Indian scriptures. “My life has always been spiritually oriented. Painting is a manifestation of it,” she told The Star in a 1978 interview. “The main thing in life,” she said at the time, “is to be open to the experiences that come your way — good, bad, whatever.”

She and Mr. Isham were married in 1950 and soon moved to Berlin, where Ms. Isham was the first foreigner to be admitted to the Berlin Academy of Arts after World War II. They lived there for four years and had their first son there. Their second son was born in Moscow, where Mr. Isham was posted next.

The family returned to the United States in the mid-1950s and Ms. Isham established a studio in Washington, D.C., where their third child, a daughter, was born. In 1962, Mr. Isham was posted to Hong Kong. After three years there, the Ishams again returned to the States, before postings to Paris in 1971 and later Haiti, where Mr. Isham served as ambassador from 1974 to 1977.

In 1967, they began spending summers on the South Fork, drawn, she told The Star in 2005, by the “energy out here, the combination of earth and sky and sea.”

They moved to Sagaponack full time in 1987. “Nature and energy inherently bring us closer to one another. We liked the farmers and the fishermen,” she said.

Ms. Isham was born in New York City on Dec. 19, 1927, to Walter Eaton and Margaret Burton Eaton. One of three sisters, she grew up there, in Cedarhurst, and on a ranch in Virginia, spending summers from the age of 6 to 19 on an 80-acre island in the St. Lawrence River in Canada. Her father was a civil engineer who worked on Wall Street but was also a skilled carpenter, horse trainer, and polo player. He was her “first teacher in art,” Ms. Isham said in the 2005 Star article.

She attended the Garrison Forest School in Maryland and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in 1950.

“My mother was a strong spirit who explored and embraced the world in her art and her life,” said her son Christopher Isham of Washington, D.C. “She was a force of nature.”

Her son Ralph Isham, who lives in New York City, described her as “an incredible wife, mother, and grandmother who broke boundaries through her art and in pursuit of a spiritual life.”

Her spiritual journey included studying the practice of Siddha yoga meditation. “Painting for me is a spiritual act — an act of transmitting the visions of the subconscious into form, line, and color through which the rhythms and symbols of our time can sing out,” she said in a brochure by Edward Fry for a 1984 exhibition at her Southampton studio.

In addition to her sons, Ms. Isham is survived by nine grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. Her daughter, Sandra Isham Vreeland, died in 1996, and her husband died in 2009.

A service will be held at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Bridgehampton on May 11 at 2 p.m.

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