Just under the large paneled skylight in her TriBeCa art studio, Shantell Martin is unpacking boxes of black lacquered chairs that will soon be adorned with her signature line drawings and illustrations. The morning rain shower has let up, and the sun peeks in and out, filling her white and black creative nook with an intermittent glow.
For weeks now, Shantell’s been traveling back and forth to Boston to work on a piece at MIT’s Social Computing Media Lab and is currently gearing up for an event tonight at Columbia University where she will host a live talk and do a commissioned staircase piece. With a schedule so jam-packed, one can see how getting overwhelmed is probable, but a rep from Christie’s Auctions just phoned in, asking to pick up the chairs in two hours. Without hesitation, Shantell assures them all six will be finished in time.
Shantell is prosperous through her pen and cites that the kinship she’s formed with it is what’s responsible for allowing her to create without inhibitions. “I’m able to get the work done by simply picking up the pen and not putting too much thought into what I’m going to create,” says the 33-year-old from Thamesmead, South East London. “If I start to question that pen or doubt that pen, then it’s not going to work. Once I put it on an object, my mind goes blank, and the pen becomes boss. You have to trust where it’s going to go and where it’s going to take you. It’s a relationship totally built on trust.”
It is this relationship, perhaps, that has allowed Martin to have such a productive year by exhibiting her solo show "ARE YOU YOU" at MoCADA in Brooklyn, doing various commissions at institutions across the country, and most recently, collaborating with her grandmother on her latest project, being shown at the Brooklyn Museum’s "Crossing Brooklyn" show in October. Outside of these efforts, she has partnered with apparel, footwear, and interior design brands and teaches a spring semester course, “Drawing On Everything,” at New York University.
Martin’s life is seemingly all about going with the flow. After graduating from London’s Central Saint Martins in 2003, she moved to Japan to teach English and ended up making a name for herself drawing live visuals at Tokyo nightclubs and hot spots. Fast forward some years later, Martin visits New York for the first time while on vacation and abruptly moves to the city a short while after her trip. “It wasn’t until I’d gotten here that I questioned ‘Oh crap, what did I just do?’ New York didn’t have a VJ scene like Japan, and I moved here naïvely thinking that, because I had a fan base there, people would know me here,” she says. “I realized everyone was an artist here, and I was worried about how I was going to make it and support myself. I spent a year and a half sleeping on my friends couches and woke up one day deciding I was getting out of here. It was that moment that made me re-examine why I moved in the first place. I knew I had to stay, because I had a goal in mind. I had something to prove and knew I was capable.”
In our sit-down with Shantell, she shares her journey with us from past to present, speaks on questioning her identity, and let’s us in on what she plans to tackle next.
Let’s start with your time as a VJ in Japan. That work was really interesting, because you collaborated with various creatives in that scene. Exactly how did you transition from teaching English to drawing live at events while living there?
I was initially teaching in the countryside of Nagoya and lasted about seven months out of my one-year contract. Basically, I quit and was like, "I'm moving to Tokyo." I found another teaching job at a Tokyo high school which was really fun. After about two years, I was transitioning out of the school and picking back up with my art.
My first big break was doing visuals for an avant-garde Japanese band that a friend of mine, who did event promotions, asked me to come draw for. At the time, I was drawing with a small 0.05 pen in Moleskine books and couldn't imagine doing anything on canvas. I asked myself, "What if I draw under a camcorder, and we connect it to a projector to project on the wall?" I started doing the drawings while this strange band was playing and absolutely loved it.
So they would perform their music while you complemented the set with visuals?
Yes. I realized that when you draw to music or while people are watching you, you don't have space to take a break or think about what you're doing. You don't have any space to plan it, because if you do, the drawing stops, and there's a disconnect between you and the audience.
I realized I really liked that space of just doing it and not stopping or thinking about the drawing—working intuitively. I kept up with it and did more shows, and it eventually evolved into me using my computer, which was connected to a drawing tablet and drawing software. People took notice, and I ended up with an accidental career.
How did that transfer to what you began doing in New York? The lines have become thicker and are now on larger works of paper. Did that start once you moved here?
After moving to New York and doing my art, I got a phone call one day from MoMA, and they asked if I could do some live projections at their annual family and friends event. Gossip Girl then asked me to do some work in one of their party scenes, and soon after that, I began getting invitations to speak about art and creativity at tech conferences.
When I was being invited to do these talks, I always felt that it was more important for people to get to experience the process of drawing or experience me drawing. From there, I started bringing paper and a board on stage, and I would actually do a drawing as I was talking about my drawing. People really got that. I only started using the large paper and thick Krink markers last year, and there are already hundreds of these drawings in storage.
Everything is also primarily in black and white. Would you say you have an aversion to color?
I personally think that color is distracting, and I think it's distractingly easy. What I mean by that is this—if you look at a painting that is very colorful, your brain is like, "Oh...pretty colors," and you don't have to look at it again.
I like the idea that when you use black and white, you're creating a well of discovery, and you're not telling anyone where to start. You're not giving anyone the story, so you're almost making them work for it. With black and white, I also like that you can keep coming back to it and discovering new things, especially when it's quite detailed. Even as a kid, I never liked using pencils because I wanted to live with my mistakes. That is another reason why I choose pens and markers.
Characters are also present in your work. Tell us a little about "Hangman," one of the very first ones.
Hangman came about when I was 21 or 22. He was a character that was unhappy, hence the frowning face, but he had a heart. He had a noose around his neck, as well, but it had been cut free. He had a chance to create a new future for himself; he was lonely and upset but had a heart and wanted to see the world. It summed me up when I was that age. I was angry and upset and felt like I had no control over my future, but I had a heart. I don’t draw him anymore, because it’s not me anymore. That was my chance to do and see more.
There are other characters, and I see my drawing as a language. The alphabet has 26 letters, and my drawing has a list of characters. Those characters are represented either in caricatures or words. One thing I find frustrating is that people will correct my words. They'll be like "Oh, she made a spelling mistake." For instance, I spell "you're" like "your" because it's like "you" and "are" with just the "r." People will be like, "No. you need an apostrophe." I always feel like, "You don't correct my lines, so why would you correct my words?" To me, they are the same. I'm also a proud dyslexic and feel that it's a superpower. I don't want to spell or place things a certain way with your words, just like I wouldn't with my drawings or lines. I feel like I'm in a battle a lot of times. It's like, "I'm an artist. These are my lines, these are my words, and they're the same thing, and it is what it is."
Questioning identity, you’ve incorporated "WHO ARE YOU," "ARE YOU YOU," and "YOU ARE YOU" into your work. Why is it significant for you to present these questions?
I'm just putting those questions out there, and people can use them in a way that's relevant and relates to them. It's not directly about identity, but it's about offering up this question that's been around for a very long time—offering it in a way that people can take and ask themselves.
Where I feel identity does come in, is with my Dear Grandmother work with my grandmother. My grandmother is an 80-something year old English woman who has has a very different life from her mixed race granddaughter. It’s needle point work, and one says "Go Home." Another says, "Come Home." People have told me to go home in England before, and they don't mean go home to your home but go home to your country. By having my grandmother sew "Go Home," then asking her what that means, and then explaining to her what it means, it creates this cross-generational dialogue between the both of us. She did one that said "British and English," and it's very subtle, but I'm not English. I'm British, and that's because I'm brown. She thinks they’re all the same, but having these conversations with her allows us to understand one another better.
The Keith Haring reference comes up often regarding your work. Would you count him as an inspiration? Are there any other artists out there who’ve inspired you, and do you plan to collaborate with anyone else?
To be honest, I didn't know who Haring was until I moved to New York. No one finished school in my family, so I wasn't around a family of artists, nor did we go to museum shows or galleries. I can see the similarities in our work, being that they we’re both spontaneous and free. But the content and space of the work is very different. People don't take the time to look at those differences; they do the association because it's easy.
I do like the illustrations of David Shrigley though and also Casey Neistat’s work. On the end of collaborating, I will be doing something with interior designer Kelly Wearstler next month and have plans to create with a store in Hong Kong. I’d love to eventually start creating large sculptural pieces and draw on people’s swimming pools as well [Laughs]. Additionally, I plan to create educational toys and curricula for teaching drawing in the classroom.
Who are YOU?
The first row of letters on my "WHO ARE YOU" posters are w-a-y. You're trying to find your way. I also have a poster that says "YOU ARE YOU" and that spells "yay." If I was to say, you are you, then I am me.
Who am I? I don't know. That answer is always changing. I'm always looking for my way to discover who I am. I am looking to discover who I am continuously through mapping out my drawings. I see my drawings as maps that will lead me to who I am, and once I can read these maps, I'll figure out who I am.