Shantell: Go Home, Come Home

Shantell Martin was once an itinerant artist – now you could say the world is her home. After five years in Tokyo, the Londoner now lives in an illustrated bedroom oasis with walls adorned with her own drawings in Brooklyn, NYC. From performing in underground clubs to being featured in the NY Times, the New Yorker and TED, Shantell is an international star on the rise. Paul Barbera makes a home visit.

“I’ve lived here for just over two years. When my friends bought the house they asked if I’d be interested in renting the space, which of course I said yes to. So as you see, my landlords are friends and supporters of my work… I guess they just didn’t want to see it [Shantell’s illustrations] spread too much in the communal parts of the house. When I was younger, my bedroom was more like a refuge, a place to hide and be quiet in. We moved a lot when I was younger, so then I never really had a space long enough to do much with it. I used to say home is where my futon is… I guess it’s the same but I’ve now switched to a less mobile bed. Favourite objects are a few of my smaller toys that I painted white. They belonged to my nephew. I love that he gave these to me in support of me creating more.

I moved into my studio earlier this year. It felt like a natural next step. I also thought it was important to have a space in Manhattan. You will be surprised at how many people still will not go to Brooklyn. Now there is no excuse. I’m on Broadway just south of Canal. My daily routine is: wake up early, breakfast, email, studio, lunch, drawing mixed all in between. Sometimes a meeting here and there, dinner somewhere – home. In 2014, I’ll start teaching my class “Drawing on Everything” again at ITP/NYU. There are a couple of conferences I’ll be speaking at, starting with Alpha-ville in London; you will also see a few nice brand collaborations being released. I just worked with the new Vespa 946 campaign, which has started its world tour of the Bvlgari stores starting this month in New York”.


“It’s my hometown. The things I love about London are more nostalgic things like foods and sweets I would eat as a kid – Monster Munch, Penguin Chocolate bars, Curly Wurley’s, Marmite on toast etc. I also like going back and catching glimpses of old TV shows like Fun House of the Dungeon Master. I really dislike the class system there and how it’s still going strong… The upper class look down on the working class and the working class dislike the upper class and all sorts of things in between. Also, if you are typically from a working class family there is a very subtle system in place to keep you there. I’m also not a big fan of how people are always raving about how multiracial London is. When there is so much race and division going on right in front of you”.


“I love how organized, systematic and clean Tokyo is. The trains are on time, you have a world of gadgets available to you, great food. I enjoyed the clubs and the really high level of skill sets individuals have across pretty much all disciplines there. In Japan though, in general, women will always be second in the workplace. People never tell you how they are feeling, sometimes really crazy stuff happens and magically, people pretend they cannot see what’s happening”.

New York…

“It’s great how hard work is celebrated here and how at times you feel like you are in a huge backyard of talent and creative minds. There is hardly a moment without new art or music shows here. What I really dislike is how we are told that the subway service is getting better, but in practice and use, you never see or experience the progress”.

On the Dear Grandmother collaboration…

“I’m so happy that my grandmother and I don’t have to talk about the weather anymore! As a kid, I remember my grandmother (Nan) making really amazing horses, tigers and other exotic animals out of needlepoint. Sometimes she would even take requests from us grandkids and bust out a Bart Simpson or a Bugs Bunny character here and there. For my final year project at Central Saint Martin’s in 2002, I asked my Nan to sew ‘HALF WHITE 1980’ in white on black and black on white, which I had framed and displayed in a couple of school shows in London. Somewhere along the way, these pieces were lost. This bothered me for years, until early 2012, a good ten years later, I asked her to re-create those pieces, which she happily did. At the end of remaking those, she asked me if I wanted anything else. Ever since, I have sent her written instructions or we’ve spoken on the phone about what the next piece we work on may look like. I like to play on issues or words that my grandmother and I would have completely different experiences and relationships to – like the recent GO HOME and COME HOME pieces.

As much as it can BE I am my work and vice versa. One does not exist without the other. The way that I draw is an experience and an exercise of the existence of ME. There are recurring words, characters and shapes in my work that in ways represent people in my life. As in life, people come and go and sometimes come back again, the same is true for these characters in my work. When starting a drawing, it’s all about movement and creating a nice flow, then after that I step back and look for a sign for the next line. I have developed a way of drawing that is a little bit like colour-by-numbers. The drawings themselves are not planned, but sometimes I do have words or a feeling in mind before starting a piece. I’m a performer before anything else. I love to have people watch me draw and for the most part, it seems people really enjoy watching. When I’m drawing digitally or with a pen, the eyes of the audience motivate and drive me. There is something magical for me in feeling that I can’t stop or pause while people are watching. If you have an audience – you can’t leave them waiting – the show must move!”

To view more of Shantell’s work and find out more about her latest projects, visit: shantellmartin.com. Huge thanks to Kiron Heriot-Darragh at SA Studios Global for her assistance in making this interview and photoshoot happen across timezones and schedules. As ever, thank you to incomparable lensman Paul Barbera. In addition to Paul’s incredible blog Where They Create, have a look at his new cats-in-interiors blog, Where They Purr.