art is a meditation: how shantell martin does less to be more

May 13, 2013

We’ve teamed up with Live Unchained to share with you the excellent interview they did with Artist Shantell Martin. Her story is powerful and her outlook is amazing. Check it out!

By:  Kathryn Buford and Kristen Nicole, LIVE Unchained for

Confusion is good to me; its a reminder that my mind is limited in what it, alone, can make sense of. Whatever you want to call that unnameable part of who we are–soul, intuition, higher power–it helps us understand our experiences on a deeper level than intellect. Since London-born and Brooklyn-based digital artist, Shantell Martin, […]

Shantell Martin with Live Unchained

Confusion is good to me; its a reminder that my mind is limited in what it, alone, can make sense of. Whatever you want to call that unnameable part of who we are–soul, intuition, higher power–it helps us understand our experiences on a deeper level than intellect. Since London-born and Brooklyn-based digital artist, Shantell Martin, connected with this part of herself, her life and art have inspired the party people of Tokyo’s megaclubs, creatives of PSFK and free thinkers around the world who attend her workshops and lectures, to all “do less and be more.”

The concept of “being more with less” came to Shantell in a dream; a piece of advice she’d unconsciously presented to herself. Since heeding her own counsel, Shantell has been able to hone in on the right ideas and get rid of the wrong distractions.  The result is a string of big-brand partnerships, an honorable recognition of the freedom she felt as a child growing up in a mixed family household and an appreciation of how technology is impacting art.  In fact, data visualization is one of the things that piques curiosity in Shantell’s ever innovative work.

As a lifelong creative, Shantell has shared the same challenge many of us free spirits face–wanting to do a little bit of everything, learning from everyone and going everywhere.  In this interview exploring Shantell’s creative journey, we discuss how she remains humble while renowned, and grounded, but unchained.

How would you describe your artwork in 5 words?

Open, fluid, free, honest, connected.

You begin your talks at creative festivals and conferences with a photograph of your younger, brown-skinned, afro-wearing self, next to your blonde and blue-eyed siblings.  Why is it important that you lead with this?


Shantell lecturing, Photo by Holly Danger

I have a different dad from my siblings, but we did all grow up in the same house, with the same mother, ate the same food and went to the same school and so on. We were equal in the house, however, once I stepped outside I noticed that I would be treated differently. I was never expected to fit in, mainly because I didn’t look like everyone else, which in a way gave me freedom to be more “me,” to be more of an individual. We all make assumptions about people’s background, family, ideas, and culture. I see this photo as a little reminder that most things are not what they initially seem to be.

I like that you not only believe in the importance of self-reflection, but also self-trust.  You’ve said: “The more you connect with yourself, [the more] you start to be inspired through your own eyes.”  How do you connect with yourself? Would you say that “inspiring yourself” was something that came naturally to you, or something you had to work towards? 

Honestly it’s definitely been a steep climb and I’m nowhere near the top either. I spent most of my teenage and early twenties angry with myself, my family, and politics of the UK. I blamed other people for the childhood that me and my siblings had. Then around 25 or 26 I lost direction completely and had no idea what I was doing with my life. Hitting a big low I realized something needed to change. Living in Japan at the time, I shopped myself off to a mediation retreat on the island of Shikoku(friends had dome it in previous years, but it never appealed to me before). Sitting with myself and thoughts for ten days, I made the first small step in creating a better, nicer, more accomplished “me.” Slowly that anger, turned into regret, then understanding and then forgiveness and now, everyday, I practice being grateful for my life and past. I try to go on a mediation retreat once a year or so, but in my daily life drawing is my meditation.

In your PSFK talk earlier this year, you repeated the phrase: “Do less. Be More.” How did this idea come to be so important to you?

It came to me as advice in a dream: Do less. Be more. I want to do everything: I want to travel everywhere, I want to make films, tattoo, draw on walls, be in a band, write, create visuals, learn to house dance, swim and so on and on and on… It’s like trying to go down ten roads at once – you won’t really get anywhere.

My goal is to become an expert at drawing–it’s as simple as that. To do that I should be drawing. I’ve had to work really really hard to get to this point and to be in the moment. It’s a huge undertaking to start to practice letting go of ideas that do not exist or fun distractions.

One of the many innovative things you’re doing with your art is incorporating data.  How do you utilize data in your art?  What inspired this direction?

Shantell Nigel Barker Collaboration, Photo by Nigel Barker

A couple of years ago I started receiving invitations to talk at conferences, discussing creativity, technology and innovation. The great thing about this has been that there are always a number of crazy talented people, either in the audience or on stage. Talking, being exposed to more talks about technology, code and data has definitely inspired me to look at data in new ways and encourage collaborations around the topic.

Well, you seem to really enjoy collaborating with other artists. What has been one of your most memorable creative collaborations? What are your dream collaborations? By the way, I really like the Field of Dreams piece with the Afrobeat feel.

I love to collaborate with other artist and makers. It’s very clear when doing so, what your strengths and weaknesses are and you can challenge each other to do more. It’s great that you mention the Field of Dreams show, but I wouldn’t say it was one of my most successful shows. Then, I was testing out sonic wire sculpture in its beta or alpha state on an iPad, which at that point was new to the market. It was an unknown, a challenge, I was out of my performing comfort zone and that’s a great place for growth.

Dream collaborations, well, there are lots. But, let’s start with artists Nick Cave, Jenny Holzer and Mr. Cartoon.

On collaborations in the U.S., you’ve noticed that people tend to be hesitant, fearing their ideas will be stolen.  What do you think accounts for the different views on collaborations across countries? Do you think collaborating is worth the risk?  

This is definitely something that exists here and in a lot in Europe. I have for the last eight years of creating and performing been as open as possible about my ideas and technique. I’ve answered countless emails from people all over the would asking me what my process is, what equipment I use, what software, etc. The more people out there creating the better, I promote sharing what I do 100%.

Much of the problems seem to lie with the bigger advertising companies that take ideas without any credit of the original source and use it for campaigns; this is a little worrisome and I hope more is done to benefit the creators financially or in other ways.

Still you’ve done a lot of great major brand collaborations.  What do you like most about these partnerships?

What’s great about collaborating with brands is that you get to see your work on solid finished products, be it 3×1 jeans, NikeiD sneakers or a spread in a magazine. You get to work with talented people and share your work with people outside of your normal reach.

Shantell Martin Adidas Design, Photo by Elion Paz

Do you think the stereotype of the tortured artist who must create through pain is played out?

Well, I can only talk for myself here. I started off as a child that needed to escape and perhaps created from pain, but now, everyday I’m working towards being a happy artist that must create just because its in my DNA. My work and I now feel much more alive!

Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?

For me, living unchained means finding that thing in your blood that you’re passionate about and pursuing it, chasing it, living it, being it…no matter what.

Written by Kathryn Buford and Kristen Nicole