Artist Shantell Martin at work

Influential Voices: An Interview with Artist Shantell Martin

Artist Shantell Martin describes her work as both spontaneous and algorithmic, and it’s this contradiction that I find really interesting. At first glance one might dismiss her marker drawings as childish doodles but allow her a moment to articulate her ideas and it’s clear her works aren’t simply naive fun; there’s a rich language in her line.

The London-born New Yorker has collaborated with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Max Mara, Saks Fifth Avenue, and she was a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab for a couple years. Now, after a recent appearance on Casey Neistat’s popular Youtube Channel (watch the video), Martin is starting her own vlog! You can subscribe to it here and you should definitely check out her episode with artist James Jean. I was delighted to get to ask her a bit about her work.

Artist Shantell Martin drawings
Artist Shantell Martin — photo by Anton and Irene
Artist Shantell Martin
Art by artist Shantell Martin — photo by Jon Paciaroni

Jeff Hamada: Do you feel like what you’re doing now is what you were born to do?

Shantell Martin: This is something I often think about. As artist, I don’t think we choose this career—it’s hard! It chooses us. Unless you come from a lot of access, it’s a career path full of challenges and hurdles and even if you went to art school you most likely were not given the tools you need to be a self-sufficient, successful artist. That aside—yes, I do believe I’m doing what I was born to do, I do believe that I found my gift in life with the knowledge that I must continue sharing it.

Jeff Hamada: I know you often start your creative talks with a photo of your family, showing how different you and your siblings look. Are there any artists in your family? Where does your creativity come from?

Shantell Martin: I love my family and we are all very different in ways, and in others quite similar. With better education and supportive external networks, I believe there would have been more artist in my family. Kind of unknowingly my Grandmother was an artist and a collaborator of mine for 10 plus years, we even showed works at a group show at the Brooklyn Museum back in 2014. I’m the first in my family to finish school and I wasn’t exposed to art, artists or galleries growing up…. What I was exposed to were cartoons—which I loved and still do.

Artist Shantell Martin — roadside
Artist Shantell Martin — photo by Theo Coulombe

Jeff Hamada: What were you like as a kid? Can you paint a picture of your life growing up?

Shantell Martin: I’m pretty much the same probably, just less physically active. As a kid, I liked my own company, obsessively collected things from stamps to plastic bags, to posters, to stickers and so on. My room was super tidy (I could tell if any of my siblings had been in my room), I loved running and cartoons, also liked going to my friends to play video games like Alex the Kid, Sonic and R-type. I was quiet, but not shy to speak up or stand up for myself when needed.

We moved around a lot when I was young so I’m not even sure how many primary schools I went to before I was 11 and then I went to Bexleyheath School where I loved sports and really got into running. I thought I would grow up and become a professional athlete but then around 16/17 I got a boyfriend and started exams etc. and started training less and less often. Basically, from there I went to Camberwell College of arts and then Saint Martins—all the way through from 16 I had part-time jobs in shops to help support myself.

Shantell Martin for Lexus/New York Fashion Week — photo by Roy Rochlin

Jeff Hamada: From what I can tell there are two halves to your artistic process—the initial part where you draw a spontaneous line across whatever happens to be your canvas, and the second part where you examine the shapes and fill them in according to a system you’ve developed. Was it a gradual process, to come up with this “system”? Or was it more of a light bulb moment?

Shantell Martin: The system comes from understanding the process. I started my career in Japan for the most part drawing live. In this environment, you don’t have time to think, plan, hesitate etc. Essentially each time I drew I was extracting some of my truest visual self—now when you repeat this and repeat this and repeat this, you can see what those recurring elements (words, characters, lines) that are naturally in you, that build up your style, your fingerprint, your identity as an artist…

For me the process and the doing is a huge part of the work and I’ve paid close attention to this to be able to really break down the simultaneously spontaneous and yet algorithmic process of my work.

Jeff Hamada: Is there a parallel between this way of creating art and the way you’re living your life?

Shantell Martin: In a way, YES… The way I live my life is to say yes to things that feel like YES and no to things that feel like NO. Of course, there are a few hiccups along the way and moments where I don’t listen to what I’m feeling but for the most part that’s it!

Jeff Hamada: Can you talk a little bit about your very first experience drawing in front of an audience in Japan?

Shantell Martin: Kinda touched on this briefly—but that first time I was in awe about how you can switch off in a way but yet still create—you know when you go into the zone and come out the other end with no idea what happened… That was like my first time performing!

Artist Shantell Martin — photo by Jon Paciaroni
Artist Shantell Martin in Denver — photo by Jon Paciaroni
A 7,000 square foot mural covering an area on 14th Street from Stout to Champa, in Denver
A 7,000 square foot mural covering an area on 14th Street from Stout to Champa, in Denver

Jeff Hamada: “Who Are You”, “You Are You”, “Are You You”, the text pieces you create (and hand out as stickers) remind me of an old saying about learning—something to the effect of: First, you don’t know you don’t know, then you know you don’t know, and then you don’t know you know, and finally you know you know. If you can follow all that, where you do feel like you are?

Shantell Martin: I know I don’t know! First time I heard this—pretty nice way to put it.

Jeff Hamada: I love the 3D printed drawing tools you created during your residency at Autodesk’s Pier 9 Workshop, have you experimented with anything like that since?

Shantell Martin: Not really, I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to really put the tools to good use. I did recently collaborate with Google X labs with the new Draw AR project, which was super fun.

3D Printed Drawing Tools by Shantell Martin
3D Printed Drawing Tools by Shantell Martin
Circuit board — photo by Jonathan Bobrow
Circuit board — photo by Jonathan Bobrow

Jeff Hamada: I’d love to connect you with my friend Sougwen, she makes collaborative drawings with a drawing robot called D.O.U.G.—maybe you already know her!

Shantell Martin: Sougwen has been a good friend of mine for years—love what she does. Every now and then we meet up for a drawing date.

Jeff Hamada: I had a hunch you’d know each other! At this point in your life, what are you most proud of?

Shantell Martin: I’m proud of my friends and family that all work soo hard!

Artist Shantell Martin — photo by Bryan Bedder
Artist Shantell Martin — photo by Bryan Bedder



Artist Shantell Martin at work
Artist Shantell Martin — photo by Jon Paciaroni

Jeff Hamada: I usually end these interviews by asking the same two-part question: What’s one thing you’d like to accomplish this next year, and what’s something you’d like to accomplish in your lifetime?

Shantell Martin: This next year it’s all about videos! I hope to accomplish vlogging/documenting my life. Subscribe and follow along to my journey here. In this life time, I would love to become a master of my line and leave a thread for many generations to come…

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