Equal parts whimsical and introspective, Shantell Martin’s bold, graphic line drawings have been featured in museum installations, projected in night clubs, and incorporated into a range of design products. Her stream of consciousness, black-and-white renderings are easily identifiable, blending enigmatic textual prompts with furtively peeking characters to create sprawling compositions that sometimes engulf entire environments.
But Martin’s compulsion to cover surfaces with line drawings isn’t limited to her art and design; she lives in her work, wearing a black-and-white uniform decorated with her own illustrations, which, of course, extend down to her sneakers. From Converse Chucks, to Adidas high-tops, to skippies, every sneaker Martin has worn for seven years has been transformed into her own wearable canvas. In our studio visit with Martin, we discuss her personal style, her current technology-based work, and the dissolution of the boundary between artwork and consumer product.
Usually we ask artists why they choose to incorporate sneakers into their art, but in your case, maybe we should ask why you think it’s important to incorporate art into your sneakers?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawing on myself and stuff that I own. As a kid, that meant drawing on my hands, arms, jeans, sneakers, etc. In a way, it’s not really about the importance of choosing sneakers as my canvas but rather continuing to use them as a natural extension of what I have always been doing.
On your shoes, you include questions, ostensibly meant to be considered or answered by the person looking at your feet. Do you think there’s a performative element to wearing these and/or are the shoes meant to be interactive works of art?
Art for me is about connection, exploration, sharing. I’ve lost count of the amount of conversations I’ve had with people in all sorts of places like elevators, trains, airports, waiting rooms, etc. All people that otherwise I would have had no interaction with.
Your work tends to overtake entire objects or environments; does that aesthetic lend itself to a more traditional studio practice? If so, how?
I’m not quite sure what a traditional studio practice is meant to look like. Perhaps you can let me know? As an artist, I have a studio and create work there, but I feel limited to just one space and am working mostly without an audience unless I invite people by. I’d much rather go outside and create site-specific work and see how the change of environment, space, and energy influences what I create.
Running themes in your work seem to be consciousness or self-criticality (using phrases like “you are you” and “who are you”) yet also optimism and playfulness. What can you tell us about this tension?
We are all here to learn, grow, question, and expand. I see myself as extremely lucky in the sense that I am able to use my natural desire to make and create art, which has helped me to deal with very painful and hard times in my life. I never knew that was what I was doing at the time, but looking back I can see how my work has come from this really lost and dark place and into the realm of optimism and playfulness you mention.
You often talk about how, as a kid, you felt different or like an outsider. How have you translated those feelings or memories into your work?
I don’t really. Those feelings enabled me to pursue a different life without the pressure to be like everyone else and do what everyone else is/was doing. In addition to having your work included in exhibitions at major museums, you also work with brands to design commercial goods.
How do you balance the “seriousness” of being a professional academic artist with a more business-minded approach to art making?
My answer to this may change in the future, but right now I believe it’s all the same. The days where an artist could just be an artist are leaving us slowly behind. Today an artist needs to be dedicated, organized, sociable, hardworking, keep up with online stuff and emails, find time to create work, find time to talk about work, negotiate, deal with contracts and agreements, etc. The actual output of an artist could be in a museum, for a company, or a private commission for a home—it’s still the artist’s work. Perhaps how and when they get paid for it looks a little different.
Would you consider collaborating with a brand to re-create your sneakers into mass-produced objects, as opposed to keeping them as unique works meant to be worn solely by you? If so, describe your dream sneaker collaboration.
Mass-producing a sneaker would make a lot of people out there happy, and I’d be totally down for doing it with the right brand. I’m sure there are more than a handful of ways to still make each sneaker unique in its own way.
Discuss your most recent body of work and how it differs from your previous work.
Right now I’m in the middle of an artist residency in San Francisco, where I have been exploring using software, 3D printers, and CNC machines (computer controlled production tools). I’ve started to create tools, which allow me to draw in new ways. For example, I created a modular connector that allows me to simply connect two markers together or connect multiple markers of different sizes, giving me a really new and unusual line. I’ve also started to explore the data behind my drawing and what that could look like.
If you could choose one person to wear a pair of your illustrated sneakers as part of their daily uniform, who would you choose and why?
Ha… I’m laughing to myself, as the first two people who jumped into my mind were The Queen of England and Oprah?! I might have to sit with that answer for a bit to figure out why.