A fine line: Shantell Martin projects freestyle performance art


via Shantell Martin on Flickr

At a recent FITC event in Tokyo I had a chance to hear renowed artist Shantell Martin speak about her artwork, as well as her connections to Japan, a place that has played a central role in her development. Her work is sometimes so simple that it resembles doodles that you might have done the margins of your school text book – but yet at the same time it sometimes has overwhelming detail and scale.

Her tool is, more often than not, a simple pen – typically traveling black lines on white surfaces, sometimes big surfaces, sometimes small. Watching her draw, you initially say to yourself “Pftt, I could probably do that,” only to realize minutes later when a jagged edge becomes a cliff and then a sailboat pops up and then a face and then, well — and then you realize there’s far more to it, crossing over into the digital space and live performance art [1].

Another dimension

via Shantell Martin on Flickr

For Shantell the act of creation is part of the work, part of the spectacle, a third dimension of time added to a 2D surface. It was when she realized that her live drawings were a type of performance art that things really became interesting. Shantell began using projectors to cast her live drawings onto wall, a gradually unfolding improvizational digital performance, sometimes to complement an on-stage music act.

Projections are great as they can take a small idea and make it big, they give you that room to be interactive with and open up a space on screens and wall etc. I would like to move out of the square format though and work with more landscapes, balloons or unexpected spaces.

Shantell says that the years that she previously spent living in Japan really influenced her ideas about visual performance, as that’s something you see a lot here. She adds:

[Japan] gave me space to discover ‘ME’ and who I was in a way, I could be Shantell from London and that was enough. Growing up in London people constantly would ask about my ethnic background or where my parents where from, etc. It’s also hard at a young age to break away from the social mirrors that friends and family have for you, and by moving away completely to a new place I could build a new foundation. Another fundamental thing [was that] I became o.k with things being cute and found ways to integrate that into my work.

Shantell Martin

Some of the figures that emerge in her work indeed have a Japanese flavor, sort of XKCD meets LSD in some ways (pictured right). But what I think is most impressive about Shantell’s work is that over the years she has developed this style into something with patterns and method, turning what that initially looks quite random into what she describes as a language.

While Shantell prefers to keep her work as low tech as possible, she does make use of a number of digital tools in her work:

When drawing live on my computer I use the Wacom Intuos4 Medium size, I really like the size and model. [I] do wish the Bluetooth option was more reliable though, but for now I make sure that the USB cable is plugged in when performing. For software I’ve been using Sketchbook pro for a long time and more recently I’ve started to make sketching using tools created using open frame works by Zack Lieberman for a drawing and code workshop that we co-taught last year at the Eyeo festival.

If you’d like to get a better idea of Shantell’s work, a picture doesn’t quite suffice as it lacks the performance aspect that is so central to what she does. I encourage you to check out her Vimeo channel, where you can find a number of wonderful videos like the one I’ve included below.

  1. I paid my way though university painting murals, so initially I actually did think that I could pull off something like this. But after watching her perform, that notion was quickly put to rest!  ↩