Shantell Martin re­counts her jour­ney from un­der­ground per­for­mance artist in Ja­pan to New York’s cool-girl art dar­ling.

ELLE (Canada) - - Special -

One of my favourite pho­to­graphs was taken when I was nine years old. I’m stand­ing with my sib­lings in our apart­ment in Thames­mead es­tate, a pub­lic-hous­ing com­plex in South­east Lon­don. I have a lit­tle Afro and brown skin, and I’m wear­ing Michael Jack­son-style shorts. Be­side me are my very blond and blue-eyed brother and four sis­ters. I’m drawn to this photo be­cause it re­minds me of how of­ten I’ve felt like an out­sider—both as a child and later as an adult. As a kid, I didn’t re­al­ize that be­ing an out­sider gave me a pass­port to be dif­fer­ent.

I also didn’t re­al­ize that I was dyslexic. When I was fi­nal­ly tested for dys­lexia in art school, my heart sank as I thought back to the num­ber of breaks I spent sit­ting in the gym be­cause of failed spell­ing tests. Teach­ers thought I wasn’t try­ing when, in fact, my brain just wasn’t pro­cess­ing words like other kids’. At the time, I didn’t know how to chan­nel my frus­tra­tion and cre­ative en­ergy, so I turned to draw­ing. Some­one could tell me that I had spelled a word wrong, but no one could say that about the lines I drew.

I started draw­ing stick-man fig­ures, which I called “Hang­man,” un­der my bed and on the in­side of my cur­tains in my bed­room. In my mind, Hang­man was a for­mer busi­ness­man who de­cided to cut the noose and break away from his en­vi­ron­ment, the class sys­tem, prej­u­dice and peo­ple’s low ex­pec­ta­tions. By the time I was 19, my sig­na­ture Hang­man char­ac­ter could be found all over Lon­don.

This early form of ex­pres­sion was an im­por­tant out­let for my frus­tra­tions. It also pre­pared me for my train­ing at Cen­tral Saint Mar­tins. It was there that I dis­cov­ered that I, like most of my teach­ers and peers, am dyslexic. That’s when I re­al­ized it was a gift to be able to think dif­fer­ently.

But know­ing that I had a gift didn’t mean I wouldn’t feel like an out­sider again. Af­ter I grad­u­ated in 2003, I didn’t feel like I be­longed in tra­di­tional gal­leries. I hadn’t found my artis­tic voice yet, and I didn’t want to just set­tle into a mould that some­one else would cast for me. At Saint Mar­tins, I had be­friended some Ja­panese stu­dents who in­tro­duced me to manga and anime. Here’s a place, I thought, where I can ex­per­i­ment anony­mously in a highly

vis­ual cul­ture. So, in­stead of strug­gling to make it as an artist in Lon­don, I moved to Ja­pan to teach English.

It was dif­fi­cult to be away from my friends, fam­ily and peers over my nearly five years there, but dur­ing that time I de­vel­oped an in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with my art. I was still draw­ing on any sur­face I could find—note­books, clothes, bot­tles— but I also started draw­ing in small Mole­sk­ine ac­cor­dion note­books. I drew with very-fine-tipped pens, so I had to get phys­i­cally close to the draw­ings to add tiny de­tails. I no­ticed how my work was evolv­ing from an­gry to “creepy cute,” with dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters and words— like “you and me” or “here now”—that were “hap­pier” than my Hang­man char­ac­ter. Th­ese books be­came vis­ual di­aries of my time in a for­eign place and would even­tu­ally be­come the sub­ject of my adult colour­ing book, which is com­ing out later this year with Pen­guin.

Af­ter seven months teach­ing English in Ko­maki, I moved to Tokyo and got in­volved in the city’s un­der­ground Ja­panoise scene. A friend, who was an event or­ga­nizer, asked me to do live vi­su­als to ex­per­i­men­tal mu­sic. At first, I drew un­der­neath a cam­corder that was at­tached to a pro­jec­tor that played the im­ages on or be­hind the band in real time. I be­gan to con­nect with other per­form­ers, from mu­si­cians who made sounds only out of static to vis­ual per­form­ers, like Ben Shep­pee, who in­te­grated a lot of tech­nol­ogy into his per­for­mance. Ben be­came a men­tor and pro­duced my first “liveog­ra­phy” DVD un­der his la­bel, Lightrhythm Vi­su­als. He also en­cour­aged me to ex­plore the role of tech­nol­ogy in my art— some­thing that I’m con­tin­u­ing to do dur­ing my cur­rent res­i­dency at the MIT Me­dia Lab.

The sense of free­dom that I felt draw­ing in front of an au­di­ence was amaz­ing. The pres­sure of not be­ing able to think or to fix mis­takes pushed me to craft a style and find con­fi­dence in my voice as an artist. When you elim­i­nate those steps be­tween you and your mind, you dis­cover who you are. Th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences un­de­ni­ably made me the artist that I am to­day.

In 2009, I moved to New York be­cause I felt ready to ex­plore a more tra­di­tional art ca­reer. I quickly learned that I couldn’t just en­ter the city’s art world. I’d show them my work and they’d say “We love it; where have you shown?” I’d de­scribe my ex­pe­ri­ences in Ja­pan and they’d say “Oh, the club scene of Ja­pan.... Thank you but no thank you.” So, early on, I had to take gal­leries out of the equa­tion. I con­tin­ued to de­velop the lines and char­ac­ters that had given me so much so­lace in Ja­pan, and by the time I was teach­ing at NYU, I could tell my stu­dents it was pos­si­ble to make a liv­ing with­out the back­ing of pow­er­ful gal­leries. Now I sup­port my­self cre­at­ing tem­po­rary ex­pe­ri­ences, lec­tur­ing and col­lab­o­rat­ing with other artists.

When I en­tered the art world, there was no Face­book, In­sta­gram, YouTube or smart­phones. Some­one asked me re­cently if my im­pro­vi­sa­tional style was in­trin­si­cally linked to the fact that it was nur­tured in the un­der­ground scene. I think hav­ing the free­dom to be truly ex­per­i­men­tal was re­ally im­por­tant, and I can un­der­stand how some young artists would be less com­fort­able be­ing pub­lic fig­ures when their work can be torn down by so­cial me­dia’s un­cen­sored and un­formed com­men­tary. I do think that so­cial me­dia has the ten­dency to be overly fo­cused on the present, which can make it chal­leng­ing for an artist to con­vey a sense of his­tory or evo­lu­tion.

How­ever, I think so­cial me­dia has done so much for artists, and I can’t help but think how much I would have ben­e­fited from re­al­iz­ing earli­er on that there was a world out­side of our Thames­mead hous­ing es­tate. I would un­doubt­edly still be an artist if so­cial me­dia ex­isted back in the day—I just think I would have got here a lot quicker. I also don’t think the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of art through so­cial me­dia sti­fles ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. I think it has re­moved that im­plied air of ex­clu­siv­ity and al­lowed trends and new ideas to sur­face and be adopted more quickly. I use so­cial me­dia to in­vite my au­di­ence into my process so I can draw on ev­ery­day ob­jects, from cars to walls to peo­ple. I al­ways en­joy bring­ing my au­di­ence in­side my cre­ative process.

I think this is an ex­cit­ing time to be an artist. We can do what we like, and we can use our on­line pres­ence to show­case what we do. We can do it on our own terms.

Martin cre­ated a tem­po­rary piece at a Queen Street Saks Fifth Av­enue party in

Toronto: “We have im­per­ma­nence around

us all the time, yet we’re still sur­prised by it. I cre­ate th­ese large draw­ings, and I en­joy the fact that they get

painted over.”

“There are two types of stick men: ones who push and pull and work to­gether and then there are stick men who play around and are lazy. It’s a re­minder that you have to work and you have to have fun.”

“The first three let­ters are WAY, which is about find­ing your way in life. I wrote this on my wall when I was a young girl, and I’m still ob­sessed with this ques­tion.”

“Even af­ter you reach YAY, you re­al­ize there’s al­ways more to learn. So you’re back to WAY. It’s a cy­cle.”

“The first let­ters of You Are You are YAY. We are es­sen­tially find­ing our way to ‘Yay!’”

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