On a crisp Sunday afternoon, Shantell Martin—pen in hand, game face on—is perched over an enormous roll of white paper unfurled on the floor of the Weill Art Gallery at the 92nd Street Y. It’s show time for Martin, an artist whose witty line drawings combine elements of improvisation, serendipity, and performance and “invite viewers to share in the creative process,” as she says on her website.
Bending down, she draws a line, then another and another, confident and quick. As she darts across the paper, isolated lines find each other and come together, morphing into a face, a sailboat, and abstract shapes that spring to life as part of a fast-growing, rapidly changing entity. “The first mark—that line is the hardest thing to do,” says Martin. “After that, it just comes. It’s like a dance with pen on paper.”
That message boils down to the question that’s at the root of her work: Who are you? And that takes us to her early life as an artist and the event that propelled her career. Born in East London, a fact that’s revealed by the lilt in her voice, Martin loved drawing from an early age. “It’s so simple but also so complex. You can’t hide anything when you draw,” she says.
She graduated from London’s elite Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. But unable to find her place in the art world, she moved to Tokyo to teach English. Eager to go to dance clubs but strapped for cash, she found work as a visual jockey, projecting drawings made in response to the music onto a screen.
Her first night on the job was a revelation. “The band started playing, and I realized if I didn’t draw the screen would be blank. And I thought, just draw. There was no time to be anyone else, no time to think. I had to feel the music and dance with it with the tools I had. For 40 minutes, I went into this zone, and the work just happened,” she says. “If not for that experience, I don’t know where my art would have taken me.”
Her next stop was New York, where she struggled initially. Realizing she had to make her own opportunities, she offered to create an installation in a space a friend had rented.
“In New York, if you can do something that’s good, it can get noticed. And that might lead to something else.”
That’s more or less what happened. Commissions started coming in—museum shows, commercial installations, product collaborations, and residencies at art and academic institutions. Martin revels in the heady mix that’s allowed her to push the boundaries of her art. She recently began experimenting with keyboard music. And she designed and 3-D printed a series of connective blocks that allow her to manipulate both the thickness and number of lines drawn simultaneously. “I thought, what’s the biggest way to change the art? Change the line,” she says.
How does she choose who she will work with? “I’m interested in people who are obsessed with what they do. That’s one reason I wanted to work with the artists at New York City Ballet,” she says.
Martin had never been to the ballet before NYCB reached out to discuss the potential collaboration, a situation since handily remedied. The sheer variety and difficulty of what she saw the dancers do impressed her deeply and left her eager to make the project a true collaboration. “Who are you? is a question of identity exploration and self discovery that connects us. I wanted to apply that to the dancers so they would inspire the work,” she says. To that end, she interviewed Company members. “I’d say, tell me your story. Why do you dance? Why does dance obsess you? How did you end up here?” She also drew from the dancers literally, creating on canvas during NYCB working rehearsals.
The NYCB installation is, in Martin’s telling, “big and bold with lots of moving parts.” How does a complex project that requires extensive planning mesh with the spontaneity prized by an artist who draws with the thickest pen on the market?
Martin points out that drawing is a journey best made with ink. “If you erase a line, you erase part of your journey,” she says.
Besides, as anyone who has ever faced a blank page knows, spontaneity doesn’t happen without ideas. Shantell Martin has plenty.
This story originally appeared in New York City Ballet’s Winter 2019 Playbill.