Lexington-based artist puts the landscape into his paintings

Contributing Arts WriterApril 19, 2012 

Darrell Ishmael's paintings have hung in the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort, the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, to name a few notable places.

On Friday, 23 of his paintings will be featured at the Milward Funeral Home at 159 North Broadway, which has been in downtown Lexington for more than a century.

The show, An Art Visitation, will be on display for one night only as a part of Gallery Hop. It's the second exhibit to be featured in Milward's historic downtown location; more are planned in the coming months.

Most people don't think of funeral homes when they think of attending an arts event, but Milward is making an attempt to change that.

"As a business in downtown Lexington for so many years, we wanted to contribute to the arts community, and this is one way for us to do that," says Joey Tucker, Milward's public relations director.

Milward has some history collaborating in the arts.

In 2011, its Man o' War location hosted a site-specific theater production by On the Verge. Three Viewings, by Jeffrey Hatcher, was set in a funeral home.

When Ishmael was approached about presenting an art show in the downtown location, he embraced the opportunity.

"I'm excited to be working with them," Ishmael says. "It's a very nice facility. They have really large rooms and it's very well lit, very lively. It's going to be a very nice show."

Ishmael, 60, is a Mt. Sterling native who now lives in Lexington. His paintings are not just inspired by the Kentucky landscape; they are made of it.

He incorporates raw materials from the Bluegrass, including sand from the Kentucky River's banks, finely powdered coal and ground limestone, into the acrylic paint and glazes of his paintings.

The materials create a luminous, textured effect that is the hallmark of Ishmael's style, a style that has attracted the eye of many regional and national collectors and Main Cross Gallery, which represents Ishmael.

He has come a long way since his first attempt at painting 15 years ago. A self-taught artist, he did his first painting at his wife's request.

"My wife wanted a painting for a wall in our home, and she told me to go do it," he says. "I produced a painting that was five feet by five feet, and I thought, 'This is really cool.' I went from there and just totally immersed myself in it."

Like many visual artists, Ishmael began experimenting with media and materials.

"I started playing with different things," he says. "I just tried sand once, and I thought, 'Well, this really changes everything; it adds texture and makes it much more fun and unique.'"

Ishmael's experiments led him to coal, limestone and eventually the Kentucky River sand, a staple of his work.

"Kentucky River sand is a heavier sand than, say, playground sand. It's a different consistency, so that combination really struck me," he says.

Ishmael keeps his collectors happy with his prolific output. Because his paintings are layered and time-intensive, he works on 10 or so at a time.

"I put down a layer and it has to dry, and so it may take weeks, months to do a painting," Ishmael says. "That's why I have so many going at one time."

Ishmael's materials and inspiration are often rooted in Kentucky soil, but he never knows where his work might take him.

"A lot of times I will paint and just set the canvas aside and go back and set it up on the easel and stare at it and stare at it, and maybe nothing ever happens," he says. "I have several canvases where maybe nothing is happening, and all of the sudden it will go bam! right out of the canvas."

Fish in Seaweed is one of the exhibit's featured paintings that was created in such a manner.

"It had a very heavy texture," Ishmael says, "and I had no idea where it was going to go. Then one night, the light and color changed, and I saw it looked like a fish in seaweed, so that's what it became. It's very rewarding, as an artist, when that happens."

Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.

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