The first thing you notice when you see artist Shantell Martin are the black lines and words scribbled on her daily uniform—white shirt, white shorts, and hand-painted white Converse. The artist draws on anything she comes across, usually taking a black marker and turning cars, shoes, bottles, toy airplanes, people, clothes, and even herself into works of art. “What I really like about working in black-and-white is you aren’t telling anyone where to go or where to start,” she explains. “Sometimes color can’t give you the space to discover new things.”
The 33-year-old has been drawing since she was a little girl growing up in the Thamesmead estate public housing complex in London. Since she wasn’t allowed to draw on the walls, she would take a pen and draw characters underneath her bed and inside the curtains in her bedroom. It was then that she first developed the stick figures that show up in her work today. “There are two types of stick men, those who push and pull and hold the work together,” says Martin. “And then there are the stick men who play around and are lazy. It’s a reminder that you have to work and you have to have fun.”
As the only mixed-race child in a family full of blonde, blue-eyed siblings, she always felt different. Perhaps that’s why, from an early age, Martin has been asking herself the same question: Who are you? The existential angst followed her to Central Saint Martins, where she studied graphic design. It was a time when she describes herself as an angry and confused college student. “Growing up in a white working-class environment and not feeling in control of your future or environment or potential can be frustrating,” she notes. To express herself, the artist developed a character named Hangman. “It is a kind of robot-shaped character and I would tag it all around London,” she explains. “Hangman was a businessman in his former life and he decided to cut the noose—home environment, the class system, the prejudice, and people’s low expectations.”
After graduating, she went to Japan to teach English in the countryside town of Komaki. She lasted seven months until she decided to jump on a train to Toyko. Once there, Martin found work as a VJ at avant-garde night clubs, where she would draw on-screen using Sketchbook Pro to go along the Japanese noise music.
She eventually made her way to New York in 2008, right around the time one of her signature phrases “WHO ARE YOU” began to show up in her work. “I’m obsessed with this question of ‘who are you,’ because it’s about figuring out my way in life,” she explains. So who is Shantell Martin? “I’m a maker, collaborator, a drawer, and a big kid,” she says laughing.
You can find this question in Martin’s work today, especially in the landscape of lines at her first solo museum exhibition “ARE YOU YOU” at MoCADA. Expect to see more from her this fall at the Brooklyn Museum’s “Crossing Brooklyn” group show too, where the artist will be showing a decade-long collaboration between herself and her grandmother—shockingly, in bright and bold color.
View Artists Work Online | Article Courtesy of Vogue.com