Shantell Martin–known for her sprawling black-and-white drawings on everything from walls to skin to Adidas sneakers–began her career as a visual artist like she begins her drawings: without a plan.
But over the past two decades, she’s carved out a revenue model to keep up with her vast portfolio.
Martin hosts SkillShare art courses, she’s an adjunct professor at NYU, and a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab’s Social Computing program, where she works with engineers, mathematicians, and artists on the future of cities. And that’s not to mention her collaborations with brands like Martone Cycling Co. and Kelly Wearstler.
“The art world is not for everyone, because the art world limits who gets in and who doesn’t get in. So when that’s the case, you have to create your own models. You have to create your own ways of working,” Martin tells Fast Company.
Here’s how she manages to thrive as a creative while sustaining her work with collaborations and commissions:
Martin grew up in London and in 2004 moved to Tokyo, where she created performance-art-style, live digital drawings in art spaces and dance clubs for five years. When she moved to New York in 2009 for a change of pace, she realized her style of creating in Japan wasn’t going to translate to the New York art scene.
“In Japan, my work went to an extremely small scale,” Martin says of the “creepy cute” aesthetic there. “The opposite happened moving to New York. My work grew in scale. Not only does the environment physically influence the medium or affect the medium, it’s also that I’ve been in different stages in my life in these different cities.”
She realized she was better suited to Gotham’s style–her work became lighter, focused, and more confident. But when she tried to pursue a traditional role of working with galleries in the city, she was met with closed doors.
“I would meet with galleries, and they’d say, ‘Oh, we loved your work. Where have you shown?'” Martin says. “‘Oh, I haven’t. I’ve just moved from the club scene of Japan.’ And they would say, ‘Well thank you, but no thanks.'”
So she took galleries out of the equation. “I like to say, if there are no doors, go out a window,” Martin says.
She spoke at conferences and put on her own art events. Now she says she’s able to make money from commissions, lecturing, and teaching.
“As an artist, the gallery has all the power. They control where your work goes. They control how much you make. They control how much they show your work. Recently, galleries are approaching me. They’re like, ‘We love your work. We want to give you a show.’ I say, ‘Well, I’m sorry. But your model doesn’t work for me now.'”
As we pointed out this week in our November cover story about Oprah Winfrey, doing the work you want to do often comes with the privilege of being able to.
But Martin says anyone can be discerning about where they focus their creative energies.
“As a human being that walks out of your door every day and lives your life, that’s not just restricted to art. As an artist, you’re presented with certain opportunities. As an individual, you’re presented with certain opportunities. And what I’ve always done is if something to me feels like a ‘no,’ I say, ‘no.’ If something instantly feels like a ‘yes’–it feels like a good fit–then you say ‘yes.'”
Once you become comfortable with what that distinction means for you, the decision becomes easier. And a byproduct of developing that business model for creating while collaborating means Martin is able to explore different aspects of her creativity.
“I get to translate my work into a different language,” Martin says of her work with the MIT Media Lab. “I get to think about my work in an analytical way. I get to think about my work in a mathematical way and be in an environment that supports that.”
But she’s also had experiences where a partnership didn’t pan out–and she says they almost always went against her better judgment.
“We’re talking about business. We’re talking about collaborations. We’re talking about work. But it comes down to this almost very organic, simple gut feeling of if it’s something you should do or not. And you have those experiences of not listening to that, and going against that, and seeing it not working out,” Martin says.
Martin’s approach to business and creativity is apparent in the way she starts a drawing: a free hand and good intentions.
“You want a certain amount of spontaneity. You want a certain amount of intuitiveness in it. But you don’t want to go blind, either. So when I create a drawing, I do start anywhere. But there is a process. And that process is to create an initial line. And that initial line I call the DNA of a drawing,” Martin says. “Once I’ve created that DNA, it’s almost like a crossword puzzle for me. Maybe there’s a line that’s smooth and round that reminds me of a side of a face. And I would draw a nose, then a mouth, then a couple of eyes. So you create this initial line that then gives you clues back. That can carry through within your business. That process–that underneath layer–has your style, your identity. It’s your core.”
To keep herself on her toes, Martin says she likes to go after challenges, whether it’s moving to a new city, taking on a difficult project, or traveling.
“I think everyone should travel. Especially as an artist, if you just stay in one spot, you might get too comfortable. And when things are very comfortable, there’s the potential of flatlining creatively, because you don’t have that resistance or that struggle to succeed or fail and creatively challenge yourself. There’s no new influence or stimulus,” Martin says. “One thing I’ve done is residencies. I do a residency at Summit Series in Utah, and that was a chance for me to be in a different environment to what I was used to. That gives you more stimulus.”
Martin, who has more than 130,000 Instagram followers, often uses the hashtag #AREYOUYOU. When she first arrived in New York, she had to recalibrate her approach to art. And to keep herself from being drowned in influences from those around her, she began to plaster the surfaces of her new loft with Post-Its marked with, “Who Are You?”
“I stuck them all on the back of the bedroom door. And what that meant is before I even left the house, I was thinking, ‘Who are you? Are you being you? What’s your goal?'” Martin says. “We’re all trying to just find our way in life. I’m trying to find my way through this language of words and lines and drawings.”
#AREYOUYOU serves as a reminder to her and her followers to be themselves. Martin, who says she had a troubled childhood growing up as the only black child in a working-class London household with five white siblings, has developed her “language” of drawing through trial and error.
“We make the assumption that you have to go out and find inspiration,” Martin says. “Inspiration comes from me. The way that I pull inspiration from myself, as a human being, is that I live a life where my focus isn’t on my art. My focus isn’t on drawing. My focus is on simply trying to be a better human being: try and eat better, drink better, think better. Just try, and try, and try. The more that you try to be a better human being, the more you want to do what you love to do. And for me, that’s drawing.”