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Why Being An Artist Is Fundamentally About Hard Work

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Shantell Martin believes she was born to be creative. “For me, I create because I can’t help it. I wake up, and I want to draw, I want to make something.” But it took her a long time to feel like she was a real artist. “When I first moved to New York, I never felt comfortable calling myself an artist. I think it was only probably a couple years ago where it felt natural and honest saying I was an artist. I think that’s because I felt like I couldn’t use that term for myself if I wasn’t functioning from my art, surviving from my art.”

Martin grew up in one of London’s many working class neighborhoods but her ingenuity as a creator allowed her to receive her BA from Central St. Martin’s. After graduation, she moved to Japan where she began creating live projected visuals for DJs, spending three to four nights a week in various clubs around Tokyo. Her move to New York in 2008 marked a shift in Martin’s thinking about what her contribution to the artistic community was going to be. Since then she has created large-scale installations for agency Young and Rubicam, and the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, collaborated with the printastic fashion house Suno, created her own line of sweatshirts and shoes, and experimented with live drawing on human models. She’s participated in a needlepoint collaboration with her grandmother and crafted a bespoke denim line with luxury jean maker 3 x 1.

“I like to say that I draw. I draw on everything. That can be digital or analog. Drawing on cars and walls and shoes and people and paper, pretty much whatever I can get my hands on. Also drawing digitally with projections and using different software and applications. When she came from Japan, I realized I was a performer, in a way, before an artist, because there was something really special about making art in real time and having people experience it. I realized that that was more important for me than the final result, just creating a space that connected people.”

Immediacy is a guiding principle that informs much of Martin’s work.

“I try not to think about the future. That’s why I have a tattoo on my leg that says “Here, now,” because my work is all about being present. I’m never really thinking, ‘This work will live somewhere else,’ because that’s not the important part for me. The important part is that this work is being experienced now. For me, creativity is about making and creating, and connecting, and experiencing.”

Martin treats the creative impulse as something undeniable that she must act on. “Creativity is just my life, and it’s that urge of waking up and wanting to do what you’re made to do.”

It is this independent drive that has pushed Martin to pursue her artistic vision relatively free of outside influences. Martin spent her early life in what she refers to as “a pretty rough, working class environment” and as a result did not have the same access to the education system as others in her field. She was diagnosed with dyslexia—but not until she was twenty-one years old, which explains her relationship to books and more traditional sources of information. “My whole life I was actually avoiding libraries, and books, because I found them very intimidating.” Therefore she doesn’t cite a single major artist as a direct influence on her work. “If you don’t go to a library to find out about artists, and you’re not exposed to art, or you don’t go to museums and galleries when you’re younger, how do you find out about art? You don’t.”

Rather, Martin was inspired by the people in her neighborhood who worked hard and made something of themselves. “What inspired me to make stuff when I was younger was people around me, people who were pushing themselves, working really hard, being unselfish, and making things better. People who were helping others. You saw people who got themselves an education and got out. I always wanted to get myself out, too.”

Martin’s overarching inspiration comes from this idea of self-betterment. “If you work on yourself as a person, then you inspire yourself. If you try to eat better, and exercise, and work through your anger problems, and issues, and if you try to be more compassionate, and forgiving—the more you do all these things, as a default, the more you want to do what you love. It doesn’t work the other way around. I can’t draw and become a better person, but I can become a better person and then do what I love.”

“We think that we have to switch on the TV, or go to a museum, or open a book to be inspired, but that’s crap. You don’t. You just have to sit with yourself, and inspire yourself.”

While Martin is adamant that we are all that is needed to inspire ourselves, she believes that people can also be the ultimate obstacle to tapping into that personal inspiration.

“If you ask a kid, ‘Can you draw?’ They answer, ‘Yeah, of course. Where are the pens?’ But if you ask an adult, they often say ‘Oh, no. I can’t draw.’ or, ‘I can only draw stick men.’ Through this infrastructure that we call the school system, or just the social system, we’ve trained creativity out of people. When you’re a kid, and if you can’t draw a house that looks like a house, then you fail. If you can’t draw a person that looks like a person, you fail. All those kids that had a crazy imagination, that were doing their own creative thing, and had their own unique style, they’re told ‘You fail, you fail, you fail.’”

“We all have that voice inside that says, ‘You can’t do that.’ And you have to overpower that voice. It’s definitely about patience and confidence. Unlearning is harder than learning.”

One method that Martin employs to keep her inner negativity at bay is collaboration. Working with other artists or incorporating people into her work offers new outlets and opportunities to shift her vision. “I work a lot with black and white. I feel like when I collaborate, people add the color to my work, both literally and figuratively.”

But fundamentally, Martin’s most consistent strategy for battling personal obstacles to creativity is action.

“I’m still learning a lot but I think my biggest lesson is not to wait for anyone. It’s very easy, especially when you come out of art school, or when you start your career, to wait for someone to give you opportunities. It just doesn’t happen. I have learned to create my own opportunities, and to use what I have access to in order to create chances and spaces for people to come and see my work, and then go away and talk about it.”

“What that does is create this ripple effect of people sharing your work and at some point, that ripple comes back to you.”

Martin’s creativity seems to come from an innate force within her, and some may call that spontaneous creative instinct ‘luck.’ Yet Martin doesn’t believe in luck, but rather that the key to success is diligence and continual optimism and enthusiasm. “Luck is just hard work coming back to you. All it is, is the combination of time, persistence, patience, and sacrifice making its way back.”

Shantell Martin

Images by Catalina Kulczar

Explore the image gallery inspired by the conversation with Shantell on Moodboard by iStock.

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