Shantell Martin’s lecture included a live drawing component

A Blank Canvas: Shantell Martin Talks Career Advice & Contemporary Art

“I was at the gym…for four days,” artist Shantell Martin remarked as a metaphor referencing her extensive sidewalk drawings around the Colorado Convention Center. Although known for her large-scale black and white line drawings, Martin considers the installation in Denver one of the most mentally and physically arduous projects of her career. Martin joined DAM Contemporaries January 17 for the first contemporary art Logan Lecture of the 2018 series, Artists on Art: From Any Angle. As well as discussing her Denver public art, Martin spoke on her art background, her cosmopolitan career, and her artistic identity.

Following an introduction by the curator, Rebecca Hart, Martin took the stage and announced: “Guess that’s me.” While starting the lecture on a light note, the idea of identity nevertheless permeated Martin’s talk. After posing the question, “Who are you?” Martin used a drawing pad to cross out the end of each word, the “extra” letters, leaving only “way.” For the artist, the initial existential question can be answered with a more concrete query: “How are you finding your way in life?” She used the “how” to touch on her identity as an artist and as a person, how art has taken her from London to Japan to New York to Denver.

Shantell Martin at work on the sidewalks of the Colorado Convention Center.
Shantell Martin at work on the sidewalks of the Colorado Convention Center. Photo by Jon Paciaroni.

Growing up in east London, Martin viewed herself as an outsider, a status that gave her a “passport” to find her own way. Drawing and writing assuaged adolescent frustration, allowing Martin to channel her struggle and get her emotions “out.” Art school opened new doors for the visual artist and provided a broader worldview that continues to inform her projects. She kicked off her career in Japan where a lack of stereotypes reinvigorated her creativity and allowed her to rediscover drawing. Martin’s years in Japan introduced her to performance art in the form of live drawing on a projector during underground concerts. For Martin, the discovery of performance marked an artistic epiphany; she finds performance enables an artist to “extract” and share their essence and put it on paper in real time.

For the final installment of her lecture, Martin drew on a canvas in front of the audience, talking through the performance and through her thoughts. Before drawing the first line, she paused to consider the daunting nature of a blank canvas. Martin remarked that a blank canvas can be “stifling,” especially with the additional pressure of an eager audience. On the other hand, a blank canvas represents potential, a tool of self-expression. Like her artwork, Martin approaches much of life with a welcoming attitude. Her advice? Treat new ideas, opportunities, and people with the open-ended possibility of a blank canvas.

Image at top: Shantell Martin’s lecture included a live drawing component. Photo by Brandon Vargas.

Katherine Uhlir has been writing for DAM Contemporaries since March 2017. Her favorite Denver Art Museum exhibitions to date are Shade: Clyfford Still/Mark Bradford and Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective.