RB: Do you feel like your work evolved tremendously after you came back from Japan?
SM: It's a mixture. When I moved to Japan, I was young and no one knew me. I didn’t speak the language and I wasn’t trapped by certain stereotypes of who I should be. Being there, gave me space to ask, "Who am I? Who do I want to be?" Without a confirmed identity, I could explore. The entire experience was really valuable.
My work in Japan was predominantly digital. I was half-doing these very detailed drawings with pen and paper on one side, and then on the other side, I got into live-performance and drawing live. I would draw under camcorders, and do visuals in clubs to alongside DJ's, dancers, and musicians. I would connect my computer to a drawing tablet and then connected that to a projector.
The great thing about having hours and hours to draw in a club, digitally, to music, is that you don't have time to think about what you're doing. You don't have time to hesitate, you don't have time to be anyone else. You just create a line.
Just imagine you've done that for hours in the club, and then you pick up a marker and you put that marker in your hand, and you're like, "Oh wait. I can just draw. I don't have to think about drawing, and I don't have to look at what I'm drawing, and I don't have to stall or hesitate about what I'm drawing, because I did this for so many hours in the club." It works with a pen in my hand on the wall or on a car, or on a shirt, or on a face, so the work I did in Japan really laid the foundation for what I do now.
RB: Would you say that your work while in laid out the foundation for the work that came out of artist residency at Autodesk, Pier 9?
SM: Yeah, I think my residency at Pier 9 was an evolution. When I got to Pier 9, I was comfortable with my line. But I had to ask myself, “How do I continue to grow? How can I get uncomfortable again? How can I be vulnerable again?” So I started inventing tools which allowed me to draw two lines, or bold lines, or multiple thickness of lines at the same time. The work that I did at Pier 9 evolved out of trying to get uncomfortable again.
RB: Did the residency at Pier 9 change the way that you connect with other artists?
SM: Yes and no. When I got back from Japan and arrived in New York, I would visit galleries and they would say "We love your work. Where have you shown?" and I'd say, "Oh, I haven't," and they'd respond, "Oh, well thank you, but no thank you."
It was a catch-22 — if you hadn’t had your work in a gallery, others assumed you couldn’t sell your work, and wouldn’t take the risk of giving you a show. It was all about commerce. So I had to take galleries completely out of the equation. If galleries weren’t a platform for my art, I would create a new platform.
Now, I’ve built a career on being an independent artist. I've shown at institutions, at museums, I lecture, I teach, I travel, I produce my own shows, I work with brands. Yet I’ve continued to work against the boxes people try to put me in. Why do people put artists in a box? Well, because it's easier to sell. I think we need to work on combating the perspective that art is only for people who can spend money on it. I’m on a journey to make people feel welcomed into the world of art. Art has such a huge benefit to us as a people, and we need to make it more accessible, not exclusive and elitist. It it a movement, and it is growing.
RB: Would you say there's one person or several people that have inspired your work? Or has it been something internal?
SM: It has been more internal, especially since most of my work is spontaneous. It's intuitive. Yes, there is a layer of process and practice underneath, but the bottom line is, I am meditating through drawing, through spontaneity. It takes a lot of intention to be intuitive. You have to allow yourself to open, to draw it all from the inside out.
I am inspired by external forces when I see people who are committed, working hard, being compassionate, and selfless. When I see those types of people, I think to myself, "Wow. I want to be more compassionate like that person," or, "I want to be more forgiving like that person." They are values we can all aspire to.
RB: Has it meant anything for you to have people watch you as you work?
SM: Immensely so. It is important to have people watch what I do for a number of reasons, mostly selfish ones. First, it keeps me honest, and it keeps me working. If I'm by myself, it's easy to get distracted. But when people are watching me, I remember who I am — an artist. I have to do what I do. Secondly, I am passionate about engaging with my audience. Rarely is the audience involved in the practice of creating the art. Usually the artist will work in a studio and then their work turns up framed in a gallery. The engagement opens up possibility. Perhaps I’ll get inspired from an interaction.
Also, I feel as though there is a collective magic in our joint creation. When you have a final piece of work, everyone will engage with it in their own way, bringing their own emotional baggage in their perception. But when the work is actually being produced, we all share that experience. For me, that process is the work, that moment when the drawing unfolds and people join me there.
RB: It sounds like the evolution of your work has changed your perception of connection.
SM: Definitely, connection is sharing, and if I can share my moment of what I do, then I'm connecting with people, and visa versa.
RB: What’s next for you?
SM: I'm working on several things at the moment. I have a show at Albright Knox opening early next year. It is after the Picasso show which is pretty exciting.
An ongoing project that I'm excited about is a collaboration with a PhD Neuroscientist, Sarah Schwettmann, from MIT. She's in the Brain and Cognitive Science (BCS) department. Turns out that we are asking very similar questions in our work, such as "where does the creative process come from?" and "what is our creative fingerprint?"
This project is an attempt to decode the creative process into its core elements, similar to how we think of human DNA, in hopes of finding the fingerprint of each particular artist.
For example -- In my artistic process, I start with a single line. I think of it as the DNA. Once I’ve finished that line, I see the negative spaces and depending on its shape, I either see a tree or face. It is almost as if the drawing is completed in my mind before I’m finished. But I was curious to examine if seeing a completed image from this one line, will allow me to see something similar in two weeks? In a year? So we sought out to have artificial intelligence learn my drawing to see if we could discover a creative fingerprint of Shantell Martin.