Interview: Shantell Martin


Photo by Sadia Bruce

Artist Shantell Martin has the kind of gentle, present countenance reserved only for the truly self-assured. I announce my arrival at her Tribeca studio with a knock and she pulls open the mint green metal door– on which she has scrawled her name in tiny letters, all caps– with a knowing smile, inviting me in to her impeccably maintained workspace for which the word “atelier” seems far more suited.

Styled with an architect’s sensibility, the light-filled space is more showroom than studio; the wood floors have been painted white and everything lies artfully in its place. Short stacks of the WHO ARE YOU and YOU ARE YOU stickers that you’ve likely spotted in Lower Manhattan or Brooklyn are live in quiet harmony on the shelf below another holding square bins of pens. Black pens. Drawings of all sizes are hung very deliberately with measured pieces of black tape. A peek into the mini-refrigerator– painted white and meticulously scrawled on– reveals a half-dozen perfectly arranged bottles of Perrier. She offers me one.

25 minutes before we are to meet, Martin makes a mad dash to the nearest big box home goods retailer to grab one of the last remaining Dyson bladeless fan heaters. A funky little thing with a Jetsons aesthetic–the sort of design that perplexes the common consumer, but strikes the design-minded as the only viable option. It is white, and Shantell is quick to assure that she’ll “be drawing all over it soon.”

A quick scan of the room reveals that the title of the class she teaches at NYU, “Drawing on Everything”, isn’t bait, but a directive she herself follows; her signature drawing style– wherein she draws one continuous line, then examines the negative space, populating it in a stream-of-consciousness fashion with characters and text– cover all manner of surfaces, from found hunks of marble to (white) Kartell chairs to the housing of her MacBook Pro.

It is hard to imagine that seven short years ago, the in-demand London-bred artist with the composed, sweet disposition– whose has collaborated with Suno, Nike, Vespa and other major brands, who has presented at TED and PopTech, and who was recently profiled by The New Yorker— had sunk into a depression so pronounced she “didn’t see reason to exist on this planet.” Living in Tokyo at the time and working as a video jockey, she had been urged for years to try a silent meditation retreat but had neither the energy nor the interest. She finally foundered in the fall of 2006, reluctantly boarding a train to Haneda Airport, where she hopped a tiny jet to a remote mountain town. For two weeks she would immerse herself in the study of Vipassana meditation, a form of self-inquiry notorious for the spartan, exacting conditions under which it is learnt and practiced.

“It was my first time, so I had no idea what to expect but I was able to go in really deep,” she says. Without speech, reading, exercise, or any contact with the outside world to distract her– all four were verboten– she had no choice but to lean in. Shantell says she left the 10-day retreat with a clarity of purpose so strong, she credits the time spent as her tipping point– the juncture at which her life as an artist really began.

Shantell no longer meditates. Rather, her work and life have become her meditations. Indeed to watch her draw is to watch someone who, rather than guiding the process, is distinctly guided by it. While she doesn’t fancy the word “vessel,” Martin does feel as though she’s tapping into the same higher level consciousness that her meditation experiences helped her access. In which case the existentialist musings and yogic mantras that are sprinkled throughout her work with a heavy hand make perfect sense. “You who do too much,” one of her characters warns, “stop and stand still.”

While Martin purports to simply “follow the pen,” there is certainly a degree of agency in her realization of “the vast sea of possibilities and freedom” that await her. Just as Harold used his purple crayon to draw his destiny, Shantell is in a sense using her pen to draft her ideal world– a world marked by expansiveness and whimsy, but having subtly complex underpinnings and always changing, always evolving.

Your work has evolved from dark to light—from cynical to hopeful; what sparked the shift?

It’s been a long journey—one I’m still on. I had to work to get past a lot of anger and feelings of hopelessness that I had at a young age and into my early 20s. By starting to live a life that felt right I started on a path to figuring out who I am meant to be.

What do you think of the idea that despondency is an agent of creativity; is anguish a precursor for high-level creativity and the expression of it?

We all have a story to tell. If you have managed to overcome anguish and fear and are living a life of freedom and possibilities you have come a long way and may have a lot more to tell. I don’t think that it is essential to come from struggle to be creative, but it does in a way help you to figure out who you are and want to be.


Photo by Sadia Bruce

What brought you to Tokyo? What do you miss most about living there?

I went to school at Central Saint Martin in London, which is a pretty famous school in Japan, so there were a lot of Japanese students studying there. I made some great Japanese friends and became interested in the language and culture.

When I finished school, I found an opportunity to teach English in Japan for a year, which I took. I ended up [staying] for five years, starting my career as a VJ/Visual Jockey, doing live drawn visuals to DJ’s, dancers, and musicians. I definitely miss the food, the sense of collaboration artists have there, and the gadget shopping.

Speaking of Japan, you have said that [renowned Japanese illustrator] Mizuki Shigeru is one of your favorite artists; his work is quite dark, while still retaining that uniquely Japanese element of kawaii. Do you strive for this pairing in your own work?

Mizuki Shigeru is awesome. His stories and characters have so much depth, both philosophically and visually. I do feel that my earlier drawings that I did in Japan do have that quality of being a little dark and cute at the same time. Living in Japan made me okay with that.  I was a little anti-kawaii before I moved there. My drawings now are very spacious and at times whimsical, but I do feel they still have a complex nature to them.

Photo by Sadia Bruce

Photo by Sadia Bruce

With what medium would you like to experiment that you haven’t yet? If you’ve tried it all, which would you most like to revisit when/if you ever tire of pens?

I really want to get into robotics and make a giant robotic drawing arm. I’d also love to direct a few music videos.

Any plans to return to your work with light projections?

Yes. I feel it needs to change or develop some how before I really do, though. This will happen organically.

You’ve collaborated with Nike and most recently, Suno; how did these collaborations come about?

In both cases, and actually most of all my brand collaborations, start with me receiving an email from someone saying that they love my work and would like to collaborate somehow. If it’s a good fit, like Suno and NikeiD were, I say yes. When [brands who want to collaborate] begin to give too much creative direction, that’s when I refer them to a friend who does whatever it is they’re looking for. They pretty much give me creative freedom– and they have to. Otherwise, it wouldn’t work.

Photo by Sadia Bruce

Photo by Sadia Bruce

Dream project/collaboration?

I would really love to collaborate with [British illustrator] David Shrigley, create a giant drawing at MoMA, have Pharrell Williams produce some of my songs, draw on a jumbo jet, create my own school of drawing and performance, release my own clothing line.

How do you feel about the level of media exposure you’ve been receiving– does it propel you or do you have fear of overexposure?

For me, [the media coverage has been] a really great way of exposing myself and work to people. I haven’t been on any magazine covers yet, so I feel like I still have a long way to go!

You have said that the family photo you show at the beginning of each of your talks represents “the beginning of [your] story.” Can you elaborate?

I show this photo at the beginning of my talks for a few reasons. The main one being to start with a clean canvas. When people see my work or me, it’s natural to have ideas and assumptions of where I’m from and how I grew up and what the work means, etc., and by showing a photograph of me with my blonde and blue-eyed [white] siblings normally illustrates instantly that any ideas they previously had are wrong – so why not start fresh?

How did MNP, your collaboration with cellist, Ann Callner, come about? Are you still creating and completing homework assignments for one another?

I love the cello and met Anna a few years back through a mutual friend. I asked if she would collaborate with me, she said yes, and we have been collaborating, on and off, ever since. We both travel a lot so we haven’t played live together for a while, but plan to for sure. It’s an underground thing, MNP; we play mainly in people’s homes, rather than in a hall or something. This allows the performance to be a true experience.

Photo by Sadia Bruce

Photo by Sadia Bruce

You have said that you sort of stumbled into Brooklyn; how has the borough informed your work or career trajectory, if at all? Is it true that you’ll be returning to Manhattan soon? What will you miss most about living and working in Brooklyn?

My studio is in Tribeca, but I still live in Brooklyn, and have no plan on leaving just yet. I really love the pace of my neighborhood and feel like I’m slowly starting to play a role there. I like being able to walk down the street, and say ‘hello’ to the same people every day. Recently, I got to draw all over my favorite restaurant in Bed-Stuy, Saraghina.

What are you reading/listening to/watching these days?

Just started to watch “The Wire” for the first time; [I] am on Season 3. I listen to a lot of radio shows—”The Story”, “On Being”, “Snap Judgment”, “This American Life”. Other than these things, I pretty much don’t know anything about anything. If you look at my iTunes, you’ll see that I have, like, ten songs in there.


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