The list of clients, partnerships and opportunities (Nike, Converse, Vitra, Slow Factory, visiting scholar at the Media Lab at MIT, Martone Cycling, Kelly Wearstler to name a few) that visual artist Shantell Martin has worked with are as impressive as her distinctive body of work. She recently collaborated with amfAR for a limited edition beach towel get it here and with Slow Factory on “Le Petit Prince” scarf inspired by the classic fantasy novella in honor of author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. We had the chance to play 23 Questions with Ms. Martin where we talked about everything from how she got her start, love of cross fit, her now recognizable signature of applying black ink to white surfaces, amfAR, tattoos and her dream collaborators.
SociaLifeChicago(SLC): How did you get involved with this amfAR project? What made you decide that this was a cause that you wanted to donate your time and effort to?
Shantell Martin(SM): I have been familiar with amfAR for a while and I was always impressed with how they started. It started and was founded in a time where no one wanted to help the cause so that was a very inspiring story and then I happened to meet with someone from amfAR who was a fan of my work so there seemed to be a natural crossover between both of our philosophies and this idea of moving forward, discovery, questioning, creating answers. There seemed to be a natural crossover and we both actually wanted to work together, so it happened quite naturally.
SLC: You have this towel with your signature artwork. When did you decide that that was going to be the style you wanted to make the Shantell Martin mark be?
SM: Well you know it’s not something I decided, it’s always been there and I look back at the work I’ve done 10 or 15 years ago and it’s very similar. It’s definitely evolved and progressed but there is an underlying foundation that me, its my style, its what I do. Its something that has found me versus the other way around.
SLC: Do you work out?
SM: I just started working out actually, a couple of months ago. Up until that point I never worked out, it’s probably been like 15 years. I just started doing crossfit. I have been doing that for about four months now.
SLC: What brought that upon? Why did you decide that now was the time to start doing that?
SM: About two or three minutes from my house , there is a little shop front gym. I would always see people do pull ups and pushups. Walking by, I always thought, oh that looks interesting but keep walking. I did that for over a year and then one day I realized I haven’t exercised in a really long time maybe I should try that. I signed up to their free trial on a Thursday, for a Saturday class. By the time Saturday came around I didn’t want to exercise anymore. That was a really kind of spontaneous choice of signing up for the free clas. But as I was already emailing the organizer I didn’t want to not turn out for the trial clas. So I went and it was so painful but I kept going. And now its good, its just for me, I go three times a week 30 minutes. I am achieving goals. I can now do my first pullup, I can do a handstand now, I can do a push up. And these are things that a few months ago were impossible for me. So its been really fun having very slow but achievable goals that you keep achieving in that way.
SLC: You were born in london but now you reside in the states. How long have you been living in New York and what are three things that you miss about back home?
SM: I’ve lived in new york since 2009 so I’ve been here I guess maybe 6 years now. But before I moved to New York I lived in Japan for 5 years. So I think maybe I miss more things about Japan than I do London. London of course, I miss my family and my friends. I miss seeing my nieces and nephews group up. And then from Japan which was the five years before I moved here I miss the food I miss the night culture. The kind of clubs and music they had there. I miss how kind of organized and clean it is.
SLC: New York is not clean?
SM: Ya I remember moving to New York and being like wow there’s trash everywhere and I remember thinking oh the subway must be under construction and after a couple weeks I was like no this is it. This is what it looks like all the time.
SLC: What brought you to Japan from London was it pursuing more art work, was it to get another perspective culture wise?
SM: Well if you speak to pretty much anyone who has graduated from art school when you first graduate you are like “oh alright what do with my life now” it’s usually kind of incredibly hard to find a job and figure out what you want to do. And I was interested in Japan and Japanese culture and visited there a couple of times before I graduated. And I was like, you know what I’d rather have no job or a crap job and be traveling around Japan than doing the same thing in London. I found myself initially at a teaching job, then I left and went to Japan. I initially planned to be there maybe 6 months or a year and that turned into 5 years.
SLC: Then New York because you were sick of it?
SM: Well if you’re from London and you just lived in Tokyo for 5 years where do you go next? I had never been to New York before I had never been to the US before. In 2008 I made some friends in Japan that are American or that are from New York and I had gotten curious. So, in 2008 I went to New York for the first time for a holiday and as you know you go to New York for the first time for a holiday and then you are like I love this place. Ya, and then you go find a lawyer and get a visa and then months later you move here.
SLC: Tattoos? Yes or no?
SM: Tattoos? Oh ya, I have a few.
SLC: What’s the first piece you got and why did you decide to get it?
SM: The first piece that I got is just kind of a big pattern piece that is on my back. And that was different because everyone at school at the time was getting little butterflies and ladybugs. I wanted to get the opposite. And then my most recent piece is a piece on my right leg and its the words “Here now” written.
SLC: In what language?
SM: Just my handwriting.
SLC: What would you describe your fashion style to be like?
SM: I have been dressing the same for as long as I can remember. So, you know it’s very much me it’s very simple it’s very casual. But it’s very unique in a way. For as long as I can remember I have been drawing on my clothes. So it’s kind of individually unique in it’s own way.
SLC: So where do you like to shop?
SM: I don’t really shop you know? I don’t have a lot of clothes. I also just where the same thing. I’m either wearing jeans or shorts. Usually my jeans and shorts are from a store called 3×1. They’re like a store here in New York. Usually jeans or shorts from there and shoes are just sneakers either converse or vans or campers or something like that. And just a white shirt that I’ll find from all over the place or that I am given from all over the place.
SLC: So you have, from the pictures that I have seen a bed of amazingly curly hair. What do you use?
SM: Thank you. My hair is actually really long you know its probably down to my elbows. Which is kind of my little secret. Firstly, I have really long hair but to be honest, I also think I have super low maintenance hair. I wash my hair once a week. I use the Whole Foods 365 conditioner and then I just put some kind of cheap body moisturizer in it and that’s it.
SLC: I feel like I don’t believe that it looks healthy it looks long. Do you take vitamins? Are you more of a healthier eater or no?
SM: I’m pretty healthy. I don’t take vitamins I think people sometimes put too much in their hair. Like I said I wash it once a week I use whole foods conditioner and any kind of cheap, St. Ives moisturizer.
SLC: What was your dream job as a kid?
SM: It’s funny as a kid I wanted to be either a runner, because I was very very fast, mostly the fastest girl in school. So, I wanted to be a runner or a cartoonist. I didn’t really know what cartoonist did, but I watched a lot of cartoons growing up so I thought that I could qualify for that job.
SLC: MIT media lab. How did that come about?
SM: Oh, I often get invited to conferences and institutions to give a talk. I am usually talking about creativity or my past in Japan or my timeline. And MIT invited me to give a talk at the lab so I gave a talk there and after my talk one of the lab leaders there said we would love to have you here longer. Would you consider being a visiting scholar? So, I said yes great sure. You don’t really say no to MIT.
SLC: From the perspective someone who is more familiar with art can see some influences of Keith Haring in your art. Is that someone who has influenced you? Or what artist has influenced you to continue to craft the way you craft?
SM: Well, I didn’t actually know about him until I moved to the US. So, he wasn’t someone who influenced my work at all and you know I would say quite the opposite. I grew up not looking at any other artist you know I grew up just being out and doing what I do. And I also tell my students this because some teachers tell them to go out and look at artist and kind of copy them and I’m like no don’t do that. Go out and look at yourself and find out who you are. Versus be a mixture of everyone else. So, I think I was fortunate enough not to exposed to pretty much art or any artist growing up. Um so, you know my work is very much my own in that way. But, of course it’s a mixture of my life and experiences where I’ve been and what I’ve seen and who I’ve met.
SLC: Where do you find inspiration?
SM: I find this question almost interesting because it implies that we have to go somewhere to be inspired. It implies that we have to open a book or turn on the computer or talk to someone to be inspired. But, how about we reverse that and we have to go inside to be inspired. You know we have to look at ourselves to be inspired. And the way that I inspire myself is by focusing or having goals that focus on me being a better me. And what i mean by that is that ok just in my life I am going to live my life and I am going to attempt to be a better human being. I am going to be kinder, I am going to be healthier, I’m going to be more positive, I’m going to be less angry, I’m going to react less, I’m going to be more forgiving, and if this is your goal then the default is that you naturally do what you love or you inspire yourself to do what you love. And for me that’s drawing, it’s art marking, collaborating, it’s sharing. And you know I don’t even have to go anywhere to inspire that in myself.
SLC: When you have time, what kind of books do you like to read in your spare time?
SM: Um, I read nerdy engineering or innovation books. Or books about innovating or technology or stuff like that. But, you know I don’t really read that often. I was given a book recently, “A kind of mind: How engineers think” I am looking forward to seeing what that’s like.
SLC: What kind of music do you listen to?
SM: Huge mixture. I like to listen to stuff I like and stuff I don’t like when I draw. That can be a bit of everything. I think it’s good not to be comfortable when you’re drawing or getting in a habit. Then your drawing kind of gets in a habit. But, if it’s me at home, I like something chilled or more minimal technoy. I don’t really remember muscicians names or bands names so I am not really good at naming people that I listen to.
SLC: You’ve collaborated with organizations, designers, Who would be the person you want to collaborate with next?
SM: Um I think you know maybe in things like architecture it would be amazing to work with you know people like Zaha Hadid and her team. With art it would be interesting to collaborate with artists like David Shrikley or Tracy Emin. I think people who are kind of artists but have managed to turn their art into architecture or fashion or different kind of forms. Just kind of interesting makers.
SLC: Circling back to the AmFar thing and philanthropy. You valued what they do they were interested in what you do. But overall, what does philanthropy mean to you? What is the importance? What philanthropy means to you and the importance of it in our society today.
SM: Well I think just in general if you give you receive and um we do live in this world of social media and kind of me me me and you if there isn’t a healthy balance of giving then you’re not receiving anything, and you’re not growing, and you’re not learning, and you’re not understanding. For me the world of giving also helps me to receive, and kind of the more value i see in that i have gained great experience and knowledge and understanding with that. And to work with an organization like AmFar they have very clear goals they want to create the cure for HIV and Aids by 2020 and you know it looks like they can do this. and as an individual just to be a tiny part of that journey is also very rewarding.
SLC: What one cool thing has your life afforded you that you were like oh my god?
SM: Um, I don’t know that’s a hard question for me because I am very happy with what I do in my life, but I never like get crazy over excited about things. I live very much in the present, so even though I can look back at all these collaborations or museum shows, or projects and be like oh wow that was good I always am just really much just thinking about what am I doing now? what am I doing now? How can I make that better? How can I make that better? So it’s really hard for me to kind of step back and reflect on these kind of big moments, and maybe that’s something I should try to do more often in the future. But you know kind of being a drawer you just keep going I just say what am i doing now now now? Lets make this better. It’s very present based.
SLC: What advice has someone given you that you have reverted back to in challenging times?
SM: Oh, I wish people gave me advice. you know, it’s all been a very much self learning journey of me making my own mistakes and learning from those. And I guess the advice that I would give that I was never given is you know create your own opportunities don’t wait for people to give you opportunities. Be as organized as you can, never work for free, never work for exposure, get contracts because contracts protect you and you need protecting. And I would say use what you have access to. So dont wait for things to attempt to do projects. just look around and say what could I get my hands on and use to make things with. Or what spaces can I get my hands on to show what I am making. So, create your own opportunities. Use what you have access to. Don’t work for exposure. Get contracts and collaborate.