To say that Shantell Martin works across multiple disciplines does little to convey the vast scope of her creative practice throughout her career thus far. Although primarily known for immersive linework & text-based installations, murals, and drawings, she is also a philosopher, educator, choreographer, and performance artist. From serving as an adjunct professor at institutions including MIT, NYU, and Columbia University and exhibiting internationally, to completing collaborations with major fashion brands such as Nike, Tiffany & Co, Ralph Lauren, and Warby Parker, it’s hard to imagine Shantell not hustling. And yet, her work largely focuses on reflection and intuition, where the recurring question of ‘Who Are You’ underscores themes of identity and belonging. It’s a question that isn’t meant to be answered instantly, but rather one to spend time with - just like her art.
In this exclusive interview with Create! Magazine, we had the opportunity to catch up with Shantell in advance of an event hosted by Fotografiska New York on July 19th (more information below) to discuss how she created opportunities for herself in the art world, her advice for pushing your creative boundaries and the projects she has coming up next.
Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up, and what are some of your earliest memories relating to art?
That's a good question; I could answer that in all sorts of ways. To keep it brief, I grew up in Southeast London, predominantly in Thamesmead. Growing up in an environment where no one looked like me was interesting. I wasn't really exposed to art at that time in a traditional sense, but probably one of my first introductions to art was through cartoons on television. This really got me into visuals, drawing, and storytelling.
How did you get your start in the industry and begin to build your career as an artist?
In a way, my career has been very grassroots...I've put one foot in front of the other and woke up one day as an artist and philosopher. I'm very fortunate to have worked across many mediums and industries. I'm also someone that doesn't put myself in specific boxes or genres because I like the idea of being able to create in any medium and industry as I'd like. That is, to me, what being an artist is.
You're no stranger to challenging yourself, with an especially ambitious recent project being choreographing your first ballet for the Boston Ballet. How have you decided in which areas to push your creative boundaries?
I firmly believe that you can bring your authentic self through any medium, and it will look, sound, and feel like you. Since choreographing my first ballet, people keep asking me if I'm a dancer or photographer, and when I say "no," they seem very surprised. I think this is because, in many industries, we have these invisible ladders that people feel you need to climb to access specific opportunities; I believe that as creative people, we should be able to take on any of these opportunities. These ladders don't exist; I don't need to be a dancer or a trained choreographer to choreograph a ballet. Those rules/walls only apply if you apply them.
There are often deep elements of reflection and identity in your work. Can you talk more about why these themes have been a focus for you?
One of the most powerful things about being a creative/philosopher/artist is that you have the power of reflection because you are constantly making, thinking, and creating. Over time, you're able to look back and digest, audit, and reflect, and I would see it as a missed opportunity to not lean into this gift of reflection that is available to me as a maker. I imagine that in life, many of us are dragging a giant eraser behind us. And for this reason, I like to work with markers. I like to work on a large scale. I like to work permanently. I feel like the lessons and journeys we are on should be remembered so we can improve, iterate, and learn from these journeys and mistakes in the future.
Many young artists dream of major brand collaborations or of exhibiting in one of the internationally recognized institutions where you've shown your work. What advice would you give them in terms of the steps to take to achieve these goals?
It's different for everyone. It's good to have really big goals, but it's also important to know why you have those goals. Once you understand the way, that might help you identify the smaller and more immediate goals necessary to keep you moving forward and progressing. There's also no rush; hopefully, art is a lifetime endeavor, so take your time.
We'd love to hear your perspective on how the intersection of art & technology has and will continue to shape the current and future generations of artists. How might it affect the art world in general as well?
I feel like technology and art have always been integrated. It's always been the case; artists have historically used technology to push art and storytelling. More recently, it seems so more than ever. As this becomes more embraced, accepted, and welcomed in the art world, perhaps we'll see art more integrated into our lives as a whole versus just as a market/destination.
Coming up, you have an event hosted by Fotografiska New York in collaboration with Jasmin Hernandez of Gallery Gurls. How did the idea for this exciting night of cultural programming come to fruition and what will it entail?
Essentially, the evening is an extension of my site-specific art piece The Elevator. We wanted to create a fun activation while the artwork is installed, and I've been a fan and friend of Gallery Gurls for a long time. I'm super happy to host this event with Jasmin, the event itself will entail a live "musical" performance from myself, followed by a fireside chat between myself and Jasmin. Everyone who is coming is in for a treat!
(scroll below for further details about this event)
What else is next on the horizon for you? Are there any projects currently underway that we can share with our readers?
For a long time, I've been working on a self-directed project, creating my typeface, Shantell Sans, based on my own handwriting. I intend to release this as an open-font License (OFL) for anyone to use and access. I'm also focusing more on music and live performance. I'm also trying to find more peaceful moments of contemplation and quiet when I'm not working...which I've never really done before.
On Tuesday, July 19th, Fotografiska New York will host an evening of musical performance by Shantell Martin and a fireside conversation with founder and editor-in-chief of Gallery Gurls, Jasmin Hernandez. The event will run from 7-9 pm. General admission tickets are $35, member tickets are $10, and press and patron members can attend for free. Following the talk, Martin will be signing copies of her first published monograph book ‘Lines’ with HENI, which are now available for purchase at the Fotografiska New York bookstore.
Alicia Puig has been a contributing writer for Create! Magazine since 2017. Find more of her work: www.aliciapuig.com