The Try Guy

William Ishmael Experiments With Materials to Create Art Worth Talking About

By Jessica Laskey
November 2018

If there’s one thing you need to know about William Ishmael’s home and studio, tucked off Fair Oaks Boulevard near Watt Avenue, it’s this: He has artwork in the shower.

If that sounds odd, allow me to explain why it seems natural in the stunning abode Ishmael shares (and designed) with his husband, landscape architect David Gibson. Art is simply part of life for Ishmael, which you can tell from the wide range of works hung everywhere you look. Some are by friends, some by Ishmael. Others are collectibles from Gibson’s trips abroad. (The doors throughout their home, for example, are from 17th-century France). So why not have a painting hanging in the shower in the guest bathroom downstairs?

“We like looking at it,” the Kentucky native says with a shrug. “We thought

our guests would too. Ishmael’s natural ease regarding the life artistic comes from more than 25 years as an artist, as well as 40 years as an engineer. (He worked on the Sacramento railyards from 1989 to 2007, an experience he references in a commission for the new Kaiser medical facility at 5th and J streets). When creating quick watercolor landscapes on his breaks from work, he discovered the joys of large-scale painting and started to experiment with the unusual materials and techniques that now characterize his work.

Ishmael is always trying new things. In the light-filled studio upstairs at his home, Ishmael’s current projects are laid out flat on tables that take up most of the room. He’s experimenting with latex and sand over here, rust created with vinegar over there. His trials of India ink on Plexiglas hang together as a visual reminder of a solo show he did for Tim Collom Gallery. And the shower in the bathroom? You guessed it: It’s filled with paintings.

“Once all the table space is taken, that means I can take a break,” Ishmael says. As relaxed as he is about his work environment, Ishmael takes his work very seriously. He spends the morning in his studio, then takes a midday break to attend meetings for his community commitments. He was appointed to the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission in 2017 and chairs its Art in Public Places committee. He’s also on the board of Kingsley Art Club, which sponsors the prestigious Crocker-Kingsley art competition.

“This flow works great for my life,” Ishmael says, pausing to ruffle his Labradoodle, Jasper. “I like alone time for a while, but then I get lonesome and like to be out in my community. Plus, I often need to leave a piece alone for a while to see what’s going to happen before moving on.”

Ishmael is inspired by various concepts in his work, including the Buddhist maxim “form is emptiness.” But what is his foremost thought when creating works of art that tease the brain, as well as please the eye?

“Experiment,” he says. “And don’t be precious with the materials.”

That would explain the paintings in the shower.

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Jessica Laskey can be reached at

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