Shantell Martin Discusses the Power of a Single Line and Why Positivity Is Her Biggest Inspiration
February 16, 2022
Shantell Martin has been exploring the magic in a single line since childhood, and it’s that seemingly minimal marking that defines her practice still today. She works primarily in black-and-white, inscribing walls, canvases, and other objects with abstracted faces and affirmational text. Inviting, accessible, and universally relevant, her monochromatic drawings are prompts for the viewer: Who are you? Are you you? She continually asks for introspection, for better articulating our positions in the world, and for questioning the structures around us, a practice she mirrors in her own life and work.
An artist, philosopher, designer, and wholly creative person, Martin has cultivated a practice that draws meaningful connections between mediums, disciplines, and ways of working. She boasts an incredibly long list of collaborators—brands like Nike, Puma, Tiffany’s and rapper Kendrick Lamar are just a few—and alongside her visual artworks, she’s choreographed ballets, spent two years as an MIT Media Lab Visiting Scholar, filmed an award-winning vlog series, and taught in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Her practice is as broad as her interests, and yet fundamentally, she hopes to convey one message: “Go out there and pick up a pen and draw.”
Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert spoke with Martin via phone in February 2022 during the artist’s trip to Los Angeles, where she’s in the process of building a studio. They discuss the vast potential of a line, the joy and fun of collaborating for the sake of collaborating, and her unwavering approach to positive thinking.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. The photo above is by Connie Tsang.
Grace: You’re working on quite a few projects at the moment: choreographing a piece for the Boston Ballet and then the virtual show that you have at the New Britain Museum of American Art. Can you tell us what else you have going on? I imagine those are not the only two things happening in your world.
Shantell: The ballet piece has taken up a lot of time because there is going to be performances from the 3rd to the 13th of March in the Boston (Citizens Bank) Opera House. That itself is a lot of work. I’ll be going to Boston in a couple of weeks to work on rehearsals there.
But what else am I working on? I’ve been working with Critical Mass for a little while helping to found an artist-in-residence program, so we’ll be going to SXSW to explore that more. It’s been a long ongoing project where I’m trying to work with an agency, in this case, Critical Mass, to create guidelines, discussions, and roundtables around this idea of making these working environments and relationships between artists, clients, and agencies much better. A lot of the time when brands want to work with artists, they do that via an agency, and usually, they have a type of contract with terms and expectations for the artists that really don’t help support (the artist) at all.
In March, I’m working with Amref Health Africa. They’re a charity I’ve worked with on-and-off for a couple years. This year, they’ve asked around three or four artists to design a pitcher, so we’re designing these beautiful pitchers that will be sold to raise money for that.
Those are more the immediate things: the SXSW panel with Critical Mass, the Amref Health Africa pitcher. In May, I’ll have a solo show with Subliminal Projects, which is a gallery here in L.A. that’s run and operated by Shepard Fairey and his studio. In between there, there are a couple NFT projects, and I’ve been consistently playing and recording my own music so those are things I’m doing consistently, as well. It keeps me busy so that’s good.
Grace: That’s true. Your work is very broad, too. How do you balance all of those different aspects of your practice?
Shantell: Another thing I didn’t mention is that I’ve been working on Shantell Sans for a while, which is my own typeface. There’s no immediate launch date for that, but I’ve been working on it behind the scenes. Currently, I’m having Shantell Sans worked into Vietnamese and Cyrillic. That’s going to be a full-fledged typeface that I’ll eventually release as an open font license.
But to answer your question, I’ve always as an individual, as an artist, been, for lack of a better word, highly productive and organized. When you get good sleep–I’ve always slept 8 hours a day. I’ve never done all-nighters–I feel like when you get good sleep, and you eat well, and you drink well, you can work on a huge variety of projects. I don’t know if everyone should or can, but I always feel like I need to be doing multiple things at the same time to keep that momentum going. If I’m not doing much or if I’m only working on one thing, I tend to get distracted. The high volume and variety of projects, one it’s just very intriguing and interesting so it keeps my attention, and two, it just keeps my focus because I need to be focused to do everything. For me, that is a comfortable space for how I like to operate and work as an artist.
Grace: Is that something you’ve cultivated over time? The ability to focus and direct your attention in multiple different ways?
Shantell: Yes, I think I had it as a kid, as well. If you have it, you do, and if you don’t, you don’t. But like you say, there is part of it that’s also cultivated. It’s a little bit of a blessing and a curse because if you can do a lot of things and you can focus and function and manage a lot of different projects, it doesn’t mean that you should. Sometimes I do take on a lot more personally than I should just because I can, and sometimes that doesn’t work in my favor in the long run.
Grace: In whatever discipline you’re working in, at the heart of your work is the line. You’ve said that was something you started working with back in your childhood, in drawing stick figures and what you called “Hangmen.” I’m wondering if you can talk about how the concept of the line has evolved for you over the years and how you’ve found so much potential in this seemingly minimal form, especially since you tend to work in black and white.
Shantell: We all draw as children, and I like to emphasize that because it’s not a skill set that’s unobtainable to anyone. It’s something we’ve all used. I always loved line drawing, and I was really fascinated in how you can create something that feels realistic or imagined in such a quick and easy way. With just simply a few lines or a few strokes, you can imagine something or bring something to life. There’s something quite magical about that, and as an artist, I feel like we all fundamentally have our own line inside of us. We all have something that we could extract. If we brought our own unique selves to it, it would be unique and different for every single individual that created a line.
I’ve been on this journey, trying to make a recognizable line. What if my line becomes so recognizable that it’s one of the most recognizable artist lines on the planet?—Shantell Martin
Starting my career in Japan, in a country that’s very craft-based and also in a country that has a sense–not to say that other places don’t have this sense–but it’s very prominent, this idea of mastery. As a young person starting to explore a career in Art in Japan, I was inspired by this idea of simplicity, mastery, and taking your time. I thought, “What’s the simplest thing that I could master or even dare to try to master in this lifetime?” That was a line.
I’ve been on this journey, trying to make a recognizable line. What if my line becomes so recognizable that it’s one of the most recognizable artist lines on the planet? There’s something so profound about that because literally, we can all make those marks. Something that’s really magical about the line is that pretty much any industry or medium starts with it. The foundation of a line is something that’s represented in architecture, design, and in fashion. You can build upon it and imagine upon it in any way that you choose to.
Grace: That’s a really beautiful way to describe the line, especially in all of its different contexts. Written words also play a pretty sizable role in your work. You’ve written about how you have dyslexia and how that’s altered your relationship with language. Why is it important for you to include text so often in your work, particularly in the form of affirmations?
Shantell: Like many kids or many people like myself, at some point, you’ve been teased about being dyslexic or you’ve seen people use it as a very negative slur. You’ve seen all the negativity that comes around it. I think being dyslexic is like a superpower, and for those of us who yield that power, there is a benefit to being proud of that and calling it out. It does enable us to think perhaps in different ways and be able to utilize different concepts. I like to say that I’m a proud dyslexic because that encourages other people to do the same and that can lessen that negative stigma.
But it’s funny with words, when I look back through my past sketchbooks, I found sketchbooks where it’s only words, and sometimes these words have been quite dark. Actually, in my earlier career, the words were not affirming. They were very angry, and they were very lost. But those words helped me to describe the environment or the feelings that I had at that time, which I couldn’t articulate or get out in any other way. Words can be such a powerful outlet to extract emotions or feelings or things that you don’t understand.
Since then, my evolution of words from this really dark, lost, angry, get-it-out place has evolved into using words like seeds. I see my words now as seeds in the sense that I’m asking questions. I’m affirming things. I’m trying to be positive. I feel like the seeds or the questions that I’m asking are asking people to contemplate, to think about things, to consider things, to ask questions about their place in society, and about society as a whole. There’s a nice juxtaposition between the linework, which now is very light and spacious and whimsical, and the questions, asking “Why are you here?” or “Why did you wake up today?” The lines now play a different role.
Grace: I want to ask about the concept of toxic positivity, which seemingly has seen its boom and subsequent retreat—I don’t see as many think pieces about it online these days. In your work, you don’t shy away from difficult topics, and you do generally center around questions about finding your voice or figuring out how to better articulate what’s going on in your life. But there are some messages that are more uplifting or inspirational. I’m thinking about “Kindness is the better way forward,” “Be gentle,” “May you be wise,” those kinds of things. I see your work as very adeptly sticking to the inspirational and not veering into that realm of toxic positivity. How do you somehow not get into that space?
Shantell: I’ve never heard the term toxic positivity before. Can you explain a little about what that is briefly?
Grace: Yes, absolutely. It felt like a pretty big thing on the internet for a little while, and a lot of it seems to tie to people saying that you just have to change your mindset, and then you’ll be happy. Or that if you’re positive, the horrible things in the world and in your life won’t be so bad because you’re staying positive. Generally, the critique is that way of thinking, if you’re only positive and you’re masking real issues with positivity, is ultimately harmful.
Shantell: I’ve never thought about that. Everything is a choice. If someone puts positive stuff out there, I’m not telling you that you should do that or you shouldn’t do that. Therefore, I don’t think it’s negative or it’s toxic. I think there are way more toxic things out there in the form of biocides, pesticides, bad diets for children, food deserts, air pollution, and water pollution that are way more toxic than someone looking at art with a positive affirmation.
You have that choice of seeing it or not seeing it. Based on your social societal structure or where you’re positioned in the world, if you’re bound to be in more poverty and have less access, you’re probably not even going to come across these things or have the time to consider what “toxic positivity” is because you’re just trying to get by with your day-to-day. I think it’s one of those terms that comes from very overeducated people that have too much time on their hands and too many choices. Essentially, if you can even consider what “toxic positivity” is out there, then that is a privilege. You have the time to do it.
What I’m creating, if you consume it, if you come across it, if you make the choice of being inspired by it, I feel like that is a fair choice. I’m not forcing it on anyone.
Grace: That’s a great perspective. You seem to really just be questioning, and I think that is such a helpful approach for a lot of people.
Shantell: Yeah, and I’m not afraid to discuss negative things or talk about social-societal systems or where I’m from, I’m from a very working-class family. I’ve seen firsthand the structures that are at play and the distractions that are at play, and so at any level, we need to still question things and ask why. I have to go look up this term toxic positivity because if we follow that term back far enough, we’ll see an agenda that is very distractive from a forward-thinking, positive way. We have to question and be highly cautious and aware of where these terms come from and the agenda that is behind them because a lot of the time, when you follow them back far enough, they’re there to distract us, to divide us, to separate us, and to deflect us from asking the really important questions about society, about poverty, about all of these bigger, higher questions that are out there.
Grace: You wrote on Instagram that you stopped watching the news. How do you balance staying engaged with taking necessary breaks?
Shantell: People often ask me, “Shantell, where does your inspiration come from?” or, “Where do you believe inspiration comes from?” I often point out that, as creative people, we’re often encouraged to go out for inspiration, to go see something, to read something, to go to a museum or institution. I say inspiration can and fundamentally does come from the inside. To utilize that, you have to put yourself in positive places or do positive things in the sense of eating well, drinking well, sleeping better, surrounding yourself with more positive things and people. If you have the ability to do those things, then as a default, or as a response to doing those things for yourself, you’ll naturally inspire yourself to be creative.
A part of philosophy in being happier, healthier, and trying to inspire that inspiration within you, is taking out these negative things that create anxiety, that create fear. When I stopped watching the news, it was one of the healthiest things that I’ve ever done for myself.—Shantell Martin
A part of philosophy in being happier, healthier, and trying to inspire that inspiration within you, is taking out these negative things that create anxiety, that create fear. When I stopped watching the news, it was one of the healthiest things that I’ve ever done for myself. Like many of us, I got caught in this cycle of fear-mongering from the news, and I had such anxiety. It’s hard to be inspired when you are living in fear and you’re being anxious.
If you stop watching the news, it doesn’t mean that now you’re disconnected from society and you don’t know what’s going on. You do. You just find it out in different ways. Personally, I encourage anyone, if you have a high level of anxiety or fear in your life or you feel like you’re getting overcommunicated in ways that are very negative, stop watching the news. You can still find resources and ways of learning currently what’s going on without having that level of negativity put on you.
Grace: Is that how you approach social media, as well?
Shantell: Yes, for social media, it hasn’t really changed. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you go down those wormholes and you’re searching for things that give you fear and anxiety, you’re going to find more of that. If you don’t, you’ll never see it. For my social media, nothing has changed. I still post with the same kind of cadence that I did before, which is not often but when I feel like it. I don’t really see any of the fear stuff because I’m never looking for it. What we have to remember with social media is that it’s going to give us what we’re looking for.
Grace: When did you start working on more collaborative projects and commissions? I know you’ve collaborated with brands like Nike, Puma, Tiffany’s and artists like Kendrick Lamar. We featured the piece you did with animator Lucas Zanatto a couple of months ago. What do those collaborations or different projects afford you?
Shantell: I’ve always been a huge collaborator. This goes back to art school, collaborating with my friends, roommates, and people that you meet who are interesting. For the last 20 plus years, most of the people I am friends that are highly skilled or obsessed in their particular area, we’ve collaborated. Not all of these get seen. You’re able to create something new and unique that is exploratory, and for me, it’s fun.
On the commercial or even academic level, I love collaborating because you get to bring something into the world that didn’t exist before. You get to expose it to a different demographic. Perhaps you get to make something unique that you couldn’t do by yourself. But as I said, probably 99% of my collaborations have never been seen because there’s something that’s very satisfying and rewarding in those partnerships, friendships, or relationships where we just make stuff because we can. It doesn’t have to be seen. There’s some other reward that I’m getting from those types of partnerships.
Grace: Do you have collaborations or ideas that you haven’t been able to explore yet?
Shantell: I would love to collaborate with an architect to build a building and have my lines inform the shape of the space. I‘d love to collaborate with more musicians in the sense of composing works together. I have collaborative ideas that I’d love to do that involve more technology that I don’t have access to. Sometimes, there are things that I’m curious about that have been on my list for a long time. The way that I deal with that is that every now and then, I put it out there and say, “Hey! I’d love to collaborate with an architect, and we design a building” or “I’d love to make a chair” or “I’d love to do this kind little art piece that requires being able to sift through millions of hours of movies and take out these different quotes and then we can compose them together.” The collaborative pieces I would like to do are the ones that pose the biggest challenges to get there.
Grace: Is there a way that you decide which collaborations you show and which you don’t?
Shantell: Not really. Obviously, if it’s with a brand or an institute, they’re built to be seen. When I’m collaborating with a friend who codes, for example, or a friend who’s a photographer, or something like that, we’re just doing it for our own satisfaction. If people see it they do, and if they don’t, that’s okay as well because we see it and that’s enough. I don’t think there’s any kind of rhyme or reason.
Grace: You mentioned fun and curiosity, and those are two words that stood out to me. Do you think those are the things that drive you?
Shantell: Those are definitely important elements, but ultimately, I’m always trying to push myself and do something that is bigger, better, and bolder—more confident, bigger in scale, bigger in the challenge, and bigger in the knowledge I gain in that process. I also like to try to achieve things that people believed that I couldn’t or more importantly, that I believed that I couldn’t. At this point, being a scholar at MIT, a fellow at Columbia, an adjunct at NYU, and having a few different pages in The New York Times, these are boxes that I’ve done. I don’t necessarily go out there and promote them or wave them around the world, but these are accolades or achievements that I’m personally collecting.
For example, people are making vlogs, and in 2018, I created a series called A Week in The Life. I learned how to create a vlog and how to put that out there in the world. And then I won a Shorty for it. I got interested in typeface so now I’m making Shantell Sans. A lot of it is at that time being interested in different mediums, different industries, or different skillsets and then learning those and trying to do something with it. I learn something from them and move on.
As an artist, you’re able to change your medium, be it a vlog, working with code, making a video, designing a sneaker, or teaching a class. It’s all the same if it’s coming from you. I think it’s all a body of art.