Only time to be yourself

Shantell Martin asks, ‘Who are you?’

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Shantell Martin
Shantell Martin © 2017, Photo by Anton & Irene

Shantell Martin works fast. With a marker in hand, she stays in constant motion — drawing lines, faces, words, squiggles, stick figures and various other objects to fill her given space. She says it almost feels like a race against the clock. 

“When you start drawing you want to get it out — it feels like you have to get it out,” Martin says. “If you were to take two weeks to make a drawing, it would be a different drawing, and it would be a different drawing each time you approached it. But if you try really fast to get it out, like it’s a race, then you’re getting out that drawing that should be in that time and moment into that space.” 

She calls herself a sprinter at heart. For Martin, the speed is driven by intention — to allow the piece to become what it wants to be, to make a more authentic artwork.  

“Time can sometimes be your enemy when you’re creating. What I mean by that is, when you have too much time to think you also have time to doubt. You have time to hesitate, to be insecure, to question what you’re doing, and you tend to think about what other people might be doing,” she says. “When you draw or when you create and the process is very fast, you take all of that away and you’re only left with that time to make something. When you’re not in your head, you only have time to be yourself.” 

Now showing at the Denver Art Museum until January 2021, Words and Lines features Martin’s drawings throughout the museum. The show houses a large-scale projection of Martin drawing in action, plus an interactive sculpture that allows the audience to mix and match Martin’s work to make their own message. In addition to the exhibit, Martin’s drawings can be found in conspicuous corners of the museum — above drinking fountains, on pillars and walls, or taking over the surfaces of an elevator. 

Shantell Martin © 2013, Photo by Catalina Kulczar Shantell Martin © 2013

The London-born artist started her career in Japan, where she created live digital drawings in night clubs along with the music. In 2008, she moved to New York and quickly cemented herself as a high-demand artist for curators and collaborators alike. She’s exhibited in museums around the country, worked with brands like Tiffany & Co. and Nike, and with artists like Kendrick Lamar. She frequently creates her work live, performing at concerts, festivals and art installations. 

Much of Martin’s work is done off the canvas — she calls the canvas “a confined way to approach space.” Her work is usually seen taking up entire walls or sides of buildings. When approaching Words and Lines, Martin looked for spots at DAM that hadn’t been utilized before. 

“I thought about how fun it would be,” she says. “Instead of just having my work in [one part of the museum], what if it kind of spanned and explored these surfaces that have never been touched before. The way that I’m exploring space is a little bit of daydreaming, a little bit of a challenge, and a little bit of discovery.” 

Walking out of a gallery into a neutral hallway or stairwell, Martin’s drawings stand out on what would otherwise be a blank wall. In that way, she says, she expands the medium and application of art, choosing nontraditional surfaces as a way to relate directly to a viewer. 

“In a way [it] breaks this traditional mold of coming from a select path and having your paintings framed very nicely and put on a wall in a very precious gallery,” she says. “You know, that’s one route. But when you explore what’s outside of that and the nontraditional and you explore new opportunities, you’re showing people that there is another route that perhaps isn’t as traditional but also is visible and obtainable in a way.”  

The simplicity of Martin’s work also makes it accessible. Her signature style features thick black lines made by markers on a white background. She rarely uses color, and avoids ornate detail. Her approach and execution are easily understood, no background in art necessary. 

“Now when people come into a museum, they come into this space and they see that art in a museum can be this simple and this accessible, and you don’t have to have a line of curators between you and the art to explain what it is and what it means,” Martin says. 

Shantell Martin © 2015, Photo by Connie Tsang Shantell Martin © 2015

Engaging the viewer is a vital element in Martin’s work. Martin frequently says she doesn’t see a difference between lines and words, but when she does use words in her artwork, they are evocative in an effort to lure in the viewer. At DAM, Martin’s phrases implore people to, “Do less, be more,” or warn, “You watch too much TV.” 

“Those words are either questions or phrases that I feel have a positive impact or a questioning impact. They’re things like, ‘Help us all rise,’ which is a positive seed,” she says. “They’re something that makes sense, but maybe not on the face of it. It might take a second to sink in what that actually means.” 

Her use of words goes beyond catchy phrases to abstract ponderings. Arguably, Martin’s most well-known work is a series of three statements: “Who are you? You are you. Are you you?” The idea was born when Martin was transitioning to life in New York and struggling to maintain a sense of self. 

She still prominently uses the phrases in her work. Now, she says, they’ve become more of a philosophy. And when she simplifies it even further, it becomes a reminder to stay close to her, or the viewer’s, guiding principles. 

“It’s about questioning who you are and where you’re from and where you fit into society,” she says. “I like to show that if you take a few of the letters away you’re just left with W, A, Y. So essentially, we’re just finding our way in life. And the next iteration of that is ‘you are you,’ which is Y, A, Y.

“I explain that it is kind of deep and dark and existential, but we’re simply, as humans, trying to find our, ‘Way to yay.’ Yay is this place of understanding and celebration,” she continues. “But we also need to repeat that cycle and keep asking that initial question. And that’s where something like, ‘Are you you?’ comes from. Just a different way of asking that initial question of who are you?”

At first, she was surprised by how much people struggled to answer, including herself. But to ask the question breaks past the definitions people hold for themselves and gets at something deeper. 

“If you ask people, it doesn’t really matter how educated they are, how travelled they are, how smart they are, how many languages they speak,” she says. “If you ask someone who they are at the core, without asking what they do or where they’re from or their name or the roles they play in life, it’s something that we all stumble on. It’s something we all have difficulty answering.” 

It interests Martin that we still struggle with such a basic question despite so much evolution as a society, and she worries about the repercussions of continuing to evolve without a core concept of self. 

And yet Martin admits she still doesn’t have a clear answer of who she is, either. 

“But that’s the journey,” she says. “I’m in no rush to find out.” 

So she picks up the marker every day, waiting for the answer to reveal itself.    

ON THE BILL: Shantell Martin: ‘Words and Lines.’ Denver Art Museum, 100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway, Denver. Through Jan. 31, 2021.