Darrell Ishmael is well known in Lexington for his charitable work. Recently, he has increasingly been recognized as an artist.
Ishmael co-founded the Lexington Dream Factory with his wife, Kathy, and the Toyota Bluegrass Miracle League, and he has been president of the Lexington Rotary Club. He has served on the boards of Commerce Lexington and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
About 12 years ago, Ishmael, 57, began to pursue a more creative outlet. He says he can't remember exactly why he chose painting, but he was "looking for an activity," so he took a watercolor class with a friend.
"We weren't very good at all," Ishmael said, but the concept of layering, essential to watercolor painting, stuck with him as he began to experiment with different materials.
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His first painting in his characteristic style was for his house, the walls of which now provided a rotating exhibition space for his many works.
Ishmael has become a prolific artist, with work at Main Cross Gallery in Lexington and Art on the Levee in Newport. He has branched into unusual media, including limestone, salt, sand, copper and, more recently, coal.
"I really realized that coal is an extremely versatile and artistically interesting material," he said.
Ishmael will show about 30 pieces in his new show, A Unique Face of Coal, at Main Cross Gallery. Almost all of the paintings use coal, highly textural and often in stark contrast with bright pigments set in glossy resin.
"It makes them mysterious, which sort of draws me in," Main Cross Gallery director Jill Coldiron said as she surveyed the hung work.
The contrasting elements of the colors and textures give the pieces an energy that "is a parallel with the energy of coal," Ishmael said.
The energy created by coal is a lightning-rod topic these days, but Ishmael doesn't want his work to become embroiled in the controversy.
"I think people should be interested in it because it is a natural resource," he said, "but I'm not making any sociopolitical statements with the art. That is not the purpose of my creative process."
Instead, viewers must appreciate the art for its striking beauty. The paintings are an expression of Ishmael's love of Kentucky resources and the inspiration he derives from his native state.
The work is extremely abstract, but many of the paintings have themes pertaining to the Kentucky landscape, or horses, a reference to the upcoming Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Vaulting is the signature piece of the show, a figural arch set against textural black, "a prelude to what we're going to be doing later this year," Ishmael said.
Not all of the works begin with clear intent. "Almost inversely, if I start a painting with a concept, I end up with a painting with a totally different concept," Ishmael said. He cites Powder River Mesa as an example of a work that "I start with a sunset and field in Kentucky and end up with what I consider a pretty dramatic piece based in the West."
The Western United States has been an important influence on Ishmael. His brother William Ishmael, also an artist, lives in California. The two have such a similar, although separately developed, style that they share a Web site, www.iamishmael.com. William Ishmael's work also is shown at Main Cross Gallery and can be seen in the current exhibit.
"It's a nice complement to Darrell's work," Coldiron said. "It's interesting to see the two brothers both being painters and having such similar styles."
Ishmael is pleased with his artistic success so far, and he hopes to continue making art an even bigger part of his life. "It's something that's become an obsessive passion," he said. "After the show I'm going to take a break ... for a couple of days."