There was never a question, even from childhood, that Michelle Sakhai would make her living as an artist. “Art has been my life since I was born,” she says. “It is part of my being.” She cut her teeth drawing and painting with watercolors, but at the early age of 13 transitioned to oil painting and almost immediately delved into impressionist-style plein air landscape painting. Later, Sakhai’s studies in the South of France solidified her focus on landscapes but also got her thinking about how she could go deeper with her art.
She found the answer years later where she never expected to find it—in abstraction. “I avoided abstract art in my formal training. I never expected to deviate from my formal teaching and landscape expression. I would not have predicted I would become an abstract painter—ever,” this New York City-based artist says. In her recently released book, Awakening, which showcases 200 of her paintings and personal quotes from her journals, Sakhai details the transformation from painting landscapes to abstract oil paintings incorporating metal leaf. In the book’s foreword she says: “It has been liberating to become an abstract painter. I don’t have to make anything look like anything or give it a name. … My process feels unbounded, limitless. I have discovered that in this place I am working at a soul level. … I did not know that such artistic freedom was possible.”
Sakhai’s first abstract series of loose images of the sky and the movement of clouds served as the bridge between her figurative and nonfigurative painting, moving her past her formal training at Hofstra University in Long Island and the Academy of Art University in San Francisco to a new form of artistic output. “I was making an inner transition, and it was being reflected through the expanse of the sky,” Sakhai says. Her landscape background still informs her abstract paintings today, providing a foundation from which she leaps into abstract expressionism. It is a traditional complement to her edgier, contemporary side that she has honed since her days studying internationally at Escola d’Art i Disseny in Barcelona and other European sites in Italy and France.
Sakhai’s medium of metal leaf oil painting has quite a unique methodology: She adheres copper, aluminum, gold or silver leafing onto the entire canvas as a base for applying oil paints. Many of her pieces have multiple layers of metal leafing and paint. Laying down fragile layers of metal leafing is an impactful way of showing movement, shadow and light, hearkening back to her experience incorporating these important characteristics into earlier landscape and nature paintings. She even paints a few pieces where she doesn’t fully adhere the metal leafing, so it flickers with every passing breeze for added interest.
Sakhai first noticed the shimmer of gold leaf during annual summer visits to Japan to see her grandparents. “I was drawn to how Japanese screens used gold leaf and was captivated by the depth yet simplicity of Japanese art,” she says. Her rich cultural background—her mother is Japanese, and her father’s heritage is Persian—along with her world travels inform her designs. Another series of paintings, Japanese Translations, is Sakhai’s interpretation of traditional Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints that she reworked into large-scale oil paintings incorporating metal leaf. “It was an enjoyable process to blend the old and the new,” she says.
While focusing on light and energy, each of her paintings is a way of connecting the divine part of her soul with the canvas, letting “each stroke serve as a vehicle for healing and peace,” as she says in Awakening. She hopes her viewers enjoy her efforts and that it leads them, too, to connect within themselves in their own way.
Galleries around the world exhibit Sakhai’s paintings, including in Tokyo, Ibiza, Miami and New York City, and in Dallas at the Design District-based Patrick Jones Gallery, which opened just 18 months ago and features blue-chip investment-level art for seasoned collectors. The modern and contemporary art gallery focuses on abstract, surreal, street, graffiti and pop art and recently began representing Sakhai’s work in its private collection curated by Patrick Jones and Reyne Hirsch. “We like to put our money where our mouth is,” says gallery manager Hirsch. “Even though we have many artworks on loan that we show, we believe in the artists we choose and often buy their pieces to display in our gallery.” Patrick Jones Gallery has more than 500 works of fine art at any one time in its inventory, providing a wide variety of artwork to fit different collectors’ wish lists and homeowners’ design styles.
Hirsch says Sakhai’s metallic art is attention-grabbing, which makes it perfect to hang in a home’s foyer, a corporate lobby or incorporate as part of a hospitality project. “We love her unique medium of choice and her use of pastel colors,” Hirsch says. A show featuring Sakhai’s metal leaf oil paintings is scheduled at the gallery beginning April 29.
Sakhai chose to associate with Patrick Jones Gallery because of her connection with the staff and the joy, love and positive energy that flows between them. “Every gallery has four walls,” Sakhai says, “but the main thing to consider is people.” Like her relationship with the gallery, Sakhai’s spiritual journey and her artistic direction have dovetailed and the resulting work is her attempt to connect with viewers. “My hope is that each viewer connects with their own inner consciousness as a result of experiencing my process,” she says. “Art offers connection. My goal with each encounter is to connect on a deep level.” *
Dana W. Todd is a professional writer specializing in interior design, real estate, luxury homebuilding, landscape design, architecture and art.