Shantell Martin is a British visual artist whose work is a meditation of lines. Creatures, faces, and conversations emerge in Shantell's stream-of-consciousness pieces, as she combines fine art, technology, and performance art. In our conversation, we hear about the evolution of her work, the exploration of identity, and her latest collaboration with a team of MIT neuroscientists, decoding the artistic process into a creative DNA.
visual artist, shantell Martin on her creative DNA
Rimma Boshernitsan: How did you grow up, and what made you pursue Art as a medium?
Shantell Martin: I grew up in Southeast London, in a place called Thamesmead, built in the late 1960s. It was meant to solve a lack of housing at the time, a place for people of different races and economic status to live together, but it didn’t really work.
It ended up being a predominantly white, working class place. Being mixed-raced meant that I stuck out. I didn't look like anyone around me at school, in my home, outside of school, which contributed to me becoming an artist. If you look like everyone around you, there is more pressure to fit in. But if there's something different, you're given a passport to be the different person.
At that time, I didn't know art was a thing you could do. Art wasn't around me — there were no galleries or museums. I didn't know any artists and I didn't know it could be a career. I did art instinctively. I think I got into it because it was the one thing someone taught me I shouldn’t do. I remember one of my teachers said, "Don't apply to art school, because you won't get in." And because I have a bit of a defiant nature, I said, "Well, this person thinks I can't do it, so I'm going to apply to art school."
Once in art school, everything shifted. You could be different, and it was celebrated, rather than rejected. It also was a revelation to understand that what I was doing naturally, was actually art.
RB: Did you realize that when you were in art school already, or was it before that you came to that realization?
SM: Going to art school made me realize that I was much more confident than many people around me. I think this was a side-effect from growing up in Thamesmead. You had to have a touch-look on the outside, otherwise people would beat you up.
I went to Camberwell College of Arts and did a one-year foundation there, graduated with distinction, and then went to Central St. Martins to do my 3-year BA. I graduated with first class honors. It was good because it reflected how hard I had worked, but also hard because it put pressure on me for the final assignment.
Before art school, I could fail and it didn’t really matter because there were no expectations. Now, I was at the top of my year and suddenly felt a lot of pressure, as if everyone was asking, "Well, what are you going to do?" I felt that people now expected something from me.
RB: Was it pressure from yourself, or did you feel pressure from others?
SM: It was internal. I never had people expecting me to achieve great things or waiting to see what I do next. But it was hard to quiet the voices that say, “you don’t deserve this.”
At that time, I was academically successful, but I didn’t understand what success in life really was. There were all these eyes watching me, but I didn’t even know my next step. It brought up internal conflicts within myself.
As I look back at some of my old work, I think, "Wow. Who is that person?” Outwardly, I was very confident, but internally, there was a deep sense that I didn’t deserve my accomplishments. As I’ve gotten older, these conflicts have subsided. I work hard. I understand that we're all unique in what we are able to give to the world. We have to discover what it is, and we have to work at it. It takes a lot of practice -- but if you work hard enough, you should feel like you deserve to give what you have and receive in return.
RB: What inspired the use of markers over other tools; lines and drawing or painting?
SM: I’ve tried everything, but I've always gravitated toward drawing, even when I was young. Anyone can pick up a pencil or a pen or a marker and draw. It's the most simple, accessible form of art.
After art school I moved to Japan, a country that is very craft-based. There you see generations of craft mastery. One family makes swords, another has mastered ink-blots, or calligraphy, and they do these crafts with such skill. They master it. Being in Japan, and experiencing its culture, I thought to myself, "If I'm going to master one thing in this lifetime, what could it be?"
I thought, "What if I make a line, the most accessible element available to all of us, and master that? What if I take a single line and make it look like me? What if I take line and make that my fingerprint, my identity?"
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.
A lot of this process starts with data collection, which tracks the trends of my work across hundreds of pieces, so we can start to build out the DNA. We can synthesize all of this to show that, for example, 98% of the time I will put a face in a particular shaped negative space. Eventually, we want to set up an experiment to test if someone who has never seen my work before would drag and drop similar elements into the lines I create. Is there a pattern? If it is the same as me, am I still unique? How does my “fingerprint” play out here? Or how is collective consciousness tied into this process?
This is all just the first stage, but at some point we could create a software which allows people to try this out for themselves, ending up with their “creative fingerprint,” or perhaps I could devise a tool for myself to record all the data from my drawing.
I wish I could go back to when I was young and weird and start recording data then. We can't do that, but what if I could have a device that captures and analyzes the evolution of my line for the rest of my life?