The Business of Art: An Interview With Shantell Martin

By Fariha Roisin on
The Business of Art: An Interview With Shantell Martin

The way Shantell Martin talks about her work is telling. She’s decisive. Direct. Any sense of romanticism is kept to a minimum as she explains the need to marry business with genuine passion when you dedicate your life to work that you love.

In many ways, Shantell has cultivated a successful career as an artist because of her ability to master the two.

All narrative, whether in art or literature, is to move forward, it is progress. It’s to be a better person.

Shantell grew up in the Thamesmead estate public housing complex in South East London. “Growing up in that environment, and you’re brown and you have an afro, it’s not easy,” she says. But she notes that feeling like an outsider in a gritty, predominantly white, working class environment endowed her with a sense of not feeling like she ever needed to fit in.

After graduating with honors from Central Saint Martins, where she majored in graphic design, Shantell pursued an opportunity to teach English in Japan. What began as a year-long experience turned into a five-year stint.

During that time, Shantell worked as a visual jockey (VJ), producing live drawn visuals to complement performances by DJs, dancers, and musicians. Although the experience furthered her career as an artist, it was a difficult time in her life. Much like in her childhood, in Japan Shantell felt like an outsider. Many times, she struggled with bouts of depression. Speaking of the experience retrospectively in an interview with Saint Heron, she remarked: “I didn’t see reason to exist on this planet.”

Seeking respite, Shantell attended Vipassana, a 10-day silent meditation retreat that involves no stimulation of the mind—no reading, writing, or talking—and almost nine hours of meditating a day. The retreat left Shantell with a clarity of purpose so strong that she now credits it as a major turning point in her life, the moment at which her journey as an artist began.

I like to say, if there are no doors, go out a window.

Asked if there was ever a time she wanted to give up, there is no hesitation in her reply: “When I moved to New York.”

A move to the city after her time in Japan delivered an unwelcome shock; Shantell’s style of creating and a lack of previous exhibitions to her name did not translate well in the local art scene, where acceptance into galleries held large sway over the commercial success of artists.

Shantell lived on friends’ couches and bartered for food and a subway card for a year and a half as she tried to get picked up by a gallery. But again, she was an outsider on the scene, and success did not arrive via the traditional route.

Mentally reframing her move to New York as a choice, rather than a sentence, helped Shantell realize that she would need to create her own opportunities if she was going to “make it” in the city. So, she systematically redefined who she was as an artist and person, and created opportunities for herself outside of the gallery scene.

Tiny shows became big shows. Small artworks became large-scale works of art, where rooms full of white were scrawled with her black lined litanies. Audiences grew in size. Gradually, more and more people became intrigued by her work.

Shantell’s lateral approach to building her profile has left a formidable portfolio of exhibitions and revenue streams in her wake. In the past two years alone, Shantell and her work have been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Jimmy Kimmel Show. She has collaborated with major brands including Nike, 3x1 Denim, and New York based luxury brand Suno. She taught a course at NYU entitled, “Drawing on Everything,” and was a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab.

More recently she drew all over Saraghina, her favorite restaurant in Brooklyn. Her first solo museum exhibition “ARE YOU YOU” took place at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA). And she continues to host Skillshare art courses, and speaks regularly at conferences worldwide.

From rock bottom, to success as an internationally renowned artist credited for her originality, Shantell has revolutionized her life, and her brand, in the space of nine years.

Asked to identify the methodology behind her success, her reply is simple: “Hard work. You keep going.”

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.
— Shantell Martin, Saint Heron

Both as an artist, and a businesswoman, Shantell embodies a level of courage commonly found in succeed-or-die-trying entrepreneurs, individuals who act as trailblazers in their niche. At every inflection point in her career, Shantell persevered where others would have surrendered.

It’s fitting that her most recent evolution of “WHO ARE YOU?” has metamorphosed to “YOU ARE YOU.” Having created each of the opportunities she wanted for herself, Shantell’s success has arrived thanks to her wholehearted acceptance of the fact that that nobody would give her a break, and a determination that she would achieve her dreams regardless.

Today, the visceral distinction of the lines in her work displays a lack of hesitation, a secret ingredient perhaps that makes both Shantell and her art so compelling.

Future aspirations include a giant drawing at MoMA, having Pharrell Williams produce some of her songs, drawing on a jumbo jet, releasing a clothing line, and creating her own school of drawing and performance.

Asked if she’s reached her peak yet, her response is direct.

“Not even close.”

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Connect with Shantell on Instagram and ShantellMartin.com

Photos by Connie Tsang, Roy Rochlin, Jonathan Beckley, MoCADA Museum, and Shantell Martin.

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