In Conversation with Shantell Martin: The Process & Power of Being Self-Made
Hailing from the UK, visual artist Shantell Martin has made a global splash with her work, which consists of using her signature black marker to draw on nearly anything. Describing her process as basically "following the pen", this distinctive approach has transformed her into a singular virtuoso. After graduating from Central Saint Martins in her native London in 2003, Martin headed to Tokyo, immersing herself in the Japanese avant-garde nightlife world. Martin carved out a successful career as a VJ (visual jockey), creating stimulating digital sketches which were projected live during experimental performances. In 2008, Martin made the big move to New York City and had to re-invent herself facing a harsher, creative landscape. Martin forged on finally landing an early VJ'ing gig with the MoMA, followed by string of others, which eventually set her on her path. Today, Martin collaborates with a diverse group of powerful clients including Viacom, Kelly Wearstler, Vitra, Lane Crawford, Neuehouse, Vespa, etc
Currently bi-coastal, Martin who is 35, shuttles between New York and Oakland, while balancing both her academic roles at NYU and MIT, along with her commissions and projects.
Gallery Gurls: In early January you participated at CES 2016 drawing in VR while using digital tools. How was this experience different to your earlier VJ work in Japan during the 2000s?
Shantell Martin: This opening performance was to give the audience a little taste of what its like to draw in VR, highlighting that it's really physical and dimensional with so many future possibilities. My VJ’ing work back in Japan was normally in collaboration with musicians, dancers or DJ's. I would create live drawings reacting to the crowd, atmosphere or/and music.
Working with art fairs like the Affordable Art Fair and Pulse, compared to working with commercial ad agencies like Mother and Y & R, does your creative process or approach ever change?
Yes and no. With regards to the art fairs the work is only up for a few days with people coming to see perhaps me but also a ton of other art. The art fairs are fun as I get to experience that moment when people discover me and my work for the first time and kinda don’t want to leave the installation. I see people come back multiple times by themselves or with friends and family. It’s nice to know that my work can have an impact on people in such a big way sometimes. With the agencies I normally come in to create a piece that will live in the space a little longer, which means people get to discover the work over time.
Currently you’re a Visiting Scholar and an Adjunct Professor, at MIT and New York University respectively, how do you balance your academic life with your artist life?
It's really tough trying to be in two places at the same time mentally. I’m still trying to work out how to manage doing everything that I want to do. I do try to just do one project at a time for a few days or weeks or even months so that I can focus as much as possible on the task at hand. This February I'll start the Pier 9 Residency at Autodesk, so I’ll be working there till May and trying my best not to get distracted.
Your 2014 solo exhibit at MoCADA almost felt like a meditative space and a kind of temple for personal self-reflection. What was your reasoning and thinking when creating this site-specific installation?
Personally I was in a place where I was really ready to ask that question of WHO ARE YOU in a new way and wanted to share that journey. I wanted the space to be as open and as peaceful as possible so that when you walked into the museum and were instantly confronted with the question of ARE YOU YOU there was enough space for you to reflect and take in the journey of lines and words for yourself.
"Personally I was in a place where I was really ready to ask that question of WHO ARE YOU in a new way and wanted to share that journey."
The phrases ‘You Are You’, ‘Are You You’, and ‘Who Are You’, appear frequently in your work. Are they personal credos? Where do they stem from and why do you include them?
The first 3 letters of WHO ARE YOU are W.A.Y - Way. We are all trying to find our way in life, me through drawing, yourself through what you do and so on, but where are we trying to find our way to? We are trying to find our way to YOU ARE YOU (and what are the first 3 letters?) Y.A.Y - Yay! YAY is a place of understanding, a celebration of self, but it's not a dead end nor an end goal. When we get to YAY we realize that there is still so much more learning, growing and understanding to be done, so we need to ask that initial question of WHO ARE YOU in new ways and that’s where ARE YOU YOU came from. This was initially a personal project that I discovered would also be a benefit to others, so I went on a little quest to share it as much as possible.
Why do you think your work is so well received? Do you think there are universal aspects to your work that speaks to broad audiences?
I do what I love. I’m not trying to be anyone I’m not, my work and I are transparent and honest.
"I do what I love. I’m not trying to be anyone I’m not, my work and I are transparent and honest."
Follow Shantell Martin on Instagram; @shantell_martin