Shantell Martin Is Stepping Boldly Into the Future (with Blanche at Her Heels)
The artist on penning a manifesto that empowers artists, choreographing a ballet, and how her dog fits into her creative process.
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Artist (and doting dog-mom) Shantell Martin has collaborated with everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Google to the Whitney Museum; choreographed for the Boston Ballet; and even exhibited her work in the Metaverse. In fact, her bold, black-and-white drawings are so persuasive, she’s even given a TED Talk about “How Drawing Can Set You Free.” London-born and Los Angeles-based, Martin’s latest installation takes place in LA at Subliminal Projects, a conversation-provoking space created by iconic artist Shepard Fairey and skateboarder Blaize Blouin.
Martin famously called-out Microsoft for their “performative allyship” (her words) in asking her to whip-up a quick Black Lives Matter mural for them, while “the protests are still relevant” (their words). Two years later, she’s fittingly named her Subliminal Projects show THE FUTURE, themed around a 27-point manifesto that questions the very point of art — its purpose, its audience, its biases — through a cultural lens.
THE FUTURE is a site-specific installation that envelopes you in her enlightened manifesto, a powerful testament to Martin as an agent of change. While installing her fluid and energetic illustrations — across walls and floors, in doorways, on canvases and painted vases, and into textiles — you could occasionally spot her rescued Havanese / Poodle mix named Blanche wandering around. How does Blanche fit into her creative process? We caught up with Martin to explain…
Does Blanche go with you to the studio? If she does, what is her energy like when you’re working?
Yeah, she’s been to my last couple of studios and she becomes a little bit like a studio guard dog, unfortunately. In my last studio, it was in a bigger building where there were many artists’ studios and I’d like to leave my door open. Blanche would sit near the door and just bark at anyone that dared to walk past. She would come to some open studios as well and same thing; she’s an all around studio guard dog. When the doors close and she doesn’t have to guard, she’ll usually just find a comfy — I used to put, and I still do, I put a moving blanket down. She’ll just chill out and sleep there and when she gets bored then she’ll harass me to go out. Yeah, she’s pretty chill otherwise in the studio.
Does she ever try to distract you?
Yeah, she does [sometimes]. She also likes to stand on things, so sometimes I’ll just be on the floor drawing and have paper on the floor — and the studio is pretty big, but then suddenly she’s standing on the paper.
Have you taken her to a lot of different shows?
Yes, she’s come to a couple of my installations. She’s also come to a few talks, and it’s actually really funny; when I’m presenting on stage, my partner Laksmi will have Blanche in the crowd but then she’ll see me come out on stage, and then she’s like, “Oh, there’s mom,” and she’ll start barking. So if she comes to any talks or something like that, we just have to keep her out of my line of sight so she doesn’t see me and get excited and start barking and distracting everyone. We do like to bring her out, though.
That is so sweet. What are you currently working on?
In March I choreographed my first ballet for the Boston Ballet. I’m a part of a charity project that launched with Amref Health Africa alongside three other contemporary artists. We designed these water pitchers; they’re super nice, limited edition, and people can buy them and the proceeds go towards Amref Health. And this month, I have a gallery show at Subliminal Projects. Apart from that, I’m just trying to take a little bit of a downtime — maybe do some drawing, make some NFTs.
Could you talk about your experience with working as a choreographer and how your work on the dance and its accompanying visual backdrop played off of each other?
I think the interesting thing with the ballet was that there are so many moving parts to it. I came into it with the concept first. I wanted to make a ballet called Kites and I had an impression of how I wanted it to feel; I just didn’t know how it would look. Before I got to Boston, I did a drawing which then was repainted at a larger scale for the backdrop. When I got to Boston, then I started on the choreography. I wanted it to feel playful and light and open. And I also wanted it to feel like it was my lines, but that the lines were kind of dancing in a different medium or a different form. So it’s interesting: some of the same approaches I have to my practice as someone that draws were also kind of the elements or tools that I use for myself when I was creating the choreography.
Do you have any background with dance?
I have zero background in dance or choreography, but I have lots of experience as an artist. It’s funny because I think as an artist, that’s the biggest title or the biggest permission that we are given to work in any medium or any field or any industry. It’s been interesting working on the ballet because I think a lot of people ask me like, “Oh, so you’re a dancer or you were a dancer, or you’re a choreographer?” And I'm like, “No, I’m an artist.” Like, isn’t the whole point of being an artist that you’re allowed the freedom of creation in any form of medium that you wish to explore? For me, it seems like a natural progression or a natural curiosity that I may want to explore, but I think for a lot of people they still put limits on the artistic permissions or careers or explorations that you’re able to do.
What inspired you to write your manifesto for FUTURE, your show at Subliminal Projects?
This is something that I’ve thought about writing for many years. I really wanted to put out a meaningful intention for the future in the form of guiding principles. Now more than ever, it seemed really important to put this down into writing and the show and manifesto seemed like the most productive and creative way to get my message across.
What experience and do you hope viewers take away from the show?
I hope that they initially have an immersive experience of art that is bold, positive, and well-intentioned. I’d love for the audience to have a quiet space to meditate over the manifesto’s principles and when they leave have questions to ask themselves.
Since you mostly reside in LA now, does Blanche travel with you when you have work on the East coast?
She does not always because — especially now that we’ve been spending more time in LA and she loves LA — she doesn’t like the cold. She’ll refuse to walk if it’s cold or raining outside, so I didn’t want to take her to Boston because the weather is kind of miserable if you’re a Blanche. But typically she travels really well, so she’ll come with us everywhere.
Would you say that Blanche has inspired your work at all?
I don’t know. I feel like she makes me happy, so I feel like she’s inspired my happiness in some levels, which perhaps inspired my work. I’m sure you have this, where you just look over and you just watch them. I think in a way that inspires feeling calm or peaceful or happy just by watching them be or even sleep sometimes. They’re not even doing anything, but I think that that in itself is kind of inspiring.
THE FUTURE runs through June 4, 2022 at Subliminal Projects in Downtown Los Angeles.
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Rachel Davies is a writer who has written for numerous publications including Vox, Wall Street Journal, and Architectural Digest and the parent of a beautiful Cocker Spaniel mix named Thea.