Shantell Martin How art and creativity lifted the artist out of unhappiness

WordsAlix-Rose Cowie

When a creative needs something to project their anxiety onto, the blank page is all too eager to volunteer. These days, London-born, New York-based artist Shantell Martin has no problem starting from scratch, but it wasn’t always this way.

“I used to see the blank canvas as something incredibly intimidating and scary,” she says, “but now I see it as a space for complete freedom and expression.”

Shantell’s mark-making, in the form of lively black and white line drawings across huge canvases, is an extension of herself, unique to her like a fingerprint or handwriting. It was while living in Japan after art school that she made the decision to master the line, to make it recognisably her’s.

Shantell starts each illustration the same way – a continuous line in black marker which she calls the “skeleton” of her drawing. This becomes the structure of each composition to which she adds faces, birds or sail boats in the gaps between lines. When she’s unsure how to continue, she’ll add a few happy dashes until the next space calls to be filled with a new character or a phrase that randomly pops into her head.

Photo by Connie Tsang

“My mind takes a back seat which allows me to be open and let the line go where it wants to take me,” she says. “In that way, it’s like a meditation as I’m highly aware and present, but at the same time am absent.”

For Shantell, the blank page could be just about anything: walls, floors, bicycles, Max Mara sunglasses, or the entire 7th floor of the Viacom building in New York. For a collaboration in 2015, she customized a Lexus at New York Fashion Week. She’s been a visiting scholar at MIT Media Lab, and co-created a live performance with Kendrick Lamar at Art Basel in Miami. A collaborative collection with Puma is set to launch in February 2018 – the ideal project for an artist who has been drawing on her own clothes for years.

Photo by Roy Rochlin
Photo by Roy Rochlin

She seems to move between art shows, street art murals and commercial collaborations with ease, but she manages to keep each project close to herself. In this way her work is a journey of self-discovery that’s driven by the biggest questions imaginable – who are you and why are you here?

“Since I was a kid, art for me has always been a way to ask myself – what am I doing with my life? Am I being myself? It’s helped me climb out of holes when I was super unhappy and lost.”

Over time, Shantell has found answers to these fundamental questions. “I’m an artist, an observer of systems, I’m curious and organized, I’m free and open, I’m constantly learning and unlearning, constantly growing and pushing. I’m here to make, create, inspire and share.”

She wants people to understand that art is for everybody so sharing is a vital part of her practice. The vast majority of her artworks are done live in front of an audience, for two main reasons.

“One, when people see the process none of the magic is lost, but the hard work and practice is exposed and two, because it keeps me honest as I do not have time to try and be anyone other than who I am.

“When you experience my work, you don’t need a row of people in-between you and the work to explain what it is. It appears to be simple enough that you feel inspired to create, yet at the same time complex enough to spark something in the viewer.”

Words by Alix-Rose Cowie