• Steven Heller

Shantell Martin on design drawing, success, storytelling


You have probably heard of Shantell Martin, the British designer with more than an inkling for comic-driven style, specifically in black and white. The New York-based artist recently painted a series of murals at the New York City Ballet’s performance hall, a sprawling collection of 10 expansive drawings. Martin — who has collaborated with Kendrick Lamar at Art Basel Miami Beach and brands like Max Mara, Puma, Tiffany & Co., and even painted a Lexus for New York Fashion Week — is speaking at HOW Design Live on May 9. She will talk about her career as an artist, illustrator and all around hustler. Martin, who teaches at New York University’s Tisch Interactive Telecommunications Program (where students bridge storytelling with technology), took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to us about illustration, keeping it grassroots and what to do about project pitches that go unanswered.

Shantell Martin has some words of wisdom to share for today’s creatives: Take your time, do what you love, be honest with yourself and others around you, educate yourself.


How do you define design drawing as an artist who bridges so many disciplines?


Shantell Martin: For me, there is only one discipline and that is the discipline of being true to yourself. I’m not divided when working on projects or different types or projects, I do not become a different person when working across mediums and industries… Slowly we are starting to see that its ok to work across disciplines and nothing really changes apart from perhaps how you get paid or credited. The goal is to simply bring your WHOLE self to whatever it is your working on.


What vision did you have in mind for the New York City Ballet murals?


Between the gold leaf ceiling and the marble floor, it was a really challenging space to work within. The only initial vision was for the work to come from the inside out not the other way round, before anything was even created I spent time interviewing 15 dancers from the company and speaking to multiple staff members to gain a greater understanding of the building, people, history and legacy of the place. I also spent time visiting during rehearsals and eventually started drawing during rehearsals.

You seem to be everywhere, what is your business approach as an artist?


Seeming to be everywhere and being in the right places are perhaps two different things.


Take a moment to ask yourself where actually am I? Make a list…. Am I everywhere ? Feel free to share the results.

In terms of getting work, how have you created opportunity since landing in NYC?


It’s been pretty grassroots, working on personal projects I love, inviting friends along to be a part of it and then repeating that over and over for many years. Friends bring friends and some of these friends and people are impacted by what they see, feel, experience and end up reaching out to me down the line.

What mistakes have you made?


In the past and actually in the recent past, I’ve reached out to people, brands and institutions that I admire stating I love what they do and would love to work with them …. this has never worked for me! When they do not have a clue about who you are or what you’re doing, they just blow you off, sometimes being extremely rude and sometimes by not responding at all. It’s not my job to try and convince anyone that they should work with me. In my experience, it does not work that way around. People in general have to have had a tangible experience with myself or my art and “get it.”

How did Instagram help build up your career?


It’s helped people outside of my reach have a visual on my work, which is incredible, however my career has been building for many more years than Instagram has been around. It’s a long endeavor of many years of hard work.

How does activism play a role in your work?


In its simplest form anyone who chooses to be an artist in today’s age and sticks at it is in a way acting out a form of social activism.


What advice do you have for designers looking for more work and attention?


Everyone is in a rush these days! Take your time, do what you love, be honest with yourself and others around you, educate yourself about all aspects of the business from taxes to contracts to preservation of your works and also do an audit of your strengths and weaknesses and THEN create a plan to focus on those week points. We no longer live in a day and age where artist can get away with simply making art (unless your extremely privileged).

What is the biggest struggle and biggest reward of living and working in NYC?


In general, cities are expensive and people don’t want to pay artist for their work yet you still need to figure out how to cover all your overhead as an artist. On the plus side, you’re surrounded by great people, food, theater and dance etc.

What do you have upcoming next?


I’m going to be working on a fun project with Governors Island in the spring, and in the fall, an installation at The Denver Art Museum.


The countdown is on! Register for HOW Design Live to see Shantell Martin on the main stage.

All images courtesy Shantell Martin.

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