If you happened to walk past the Colorado Convention Center this week, there’s a good chance you saw art being made — humongous art following continuous lines through a pattern of words, shapes and faces across a black-and-white urban canvas. It's being rendered by a lone women in knee pads, brandishing a spray can. The artist is Shantell Martin, London-born and New York-based; her trademark spontaneous lines have circled the globe, along with her reputation as a creative who breaks the mold, many times over.
In Denver, Martin is transforming a 2,050-square-foot area enveloping the convention center, at the invitation of the Denver Theatre District, with curation by Nine Dot Arts. It’s part of the DTD’s Terra Firma public-art installation series, which previously brought Australian Konstantin Dimopoulos to town to paint trees blue last spring. Martin plans to complete the sidewalk mural by Friday or Saturday; on Friday, she’ll also install a bench in the shape of letters on the plaza. The public is invited to stop by and see the work unfold.
Martin’s signature style and visual language didn’t evolve at art school, fine-tuned by a mentor. Like most street art, it was an opportunity to grab. “I think we all have a style within us. I discovered mine by accident,” she says. “I had a career in Japan as a VJ, doing live drawing to musicians, DJs and dancers in mega-clubs. When you draw live, there’s no time to plan, no time to hesitate, no time to be anyone except yourself. If you stop creating, even for a moment, the audience will not follow you, so you just draw and you draw and you draw. You can only be yourself. Then you repeat and start to see recurring lines, faces and words, and that’s just the style you've extracted and pulled out of what you do.”
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Armed with those new skills, Martin relocated to New York in 2009, hoping to break into the gallery scene. But she ran up against unexpected challenges.
“I’d go to the galleries, and the first thing they’d ask is, ‘Where have you shown your work?’ I’d say the club scene of Japan, and of course they’d say no,” she continues. “It’s a real catch-22: If you haven't shown before, it’s hard to show….” So she forged ahead on her own. “I discovered they didn't have the same club scene in New York as they had in Japan. There was no cultural expression for my visuals, so my work evolved and got picked up all over again."
Never a quitter, Martin told herself, “I’m not gonna not make art.” Instead, she adds, “the world was my canvas, and I decided I was gonna draw on everything. That led to me to drawing on my shirts, on my shoes, on cars — and then it led me to draw on my bedroom wall. And then the New York Times covered my bedroom piece, and I was on the cover of the New York Times Home & Garden section in 2012.
“I got noticed because I was out there creating as an artist,” she says. “In New York, no one cares who you are, but if someone sees you doing something cool, they’re likely to tell someone else. Then you get noticed.”
Martin’s gone on to apply her stream-of-consciousness performance style to urban walls in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Coney Island, as well as in museums (most recently, at the prestigious Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo, New York). Her Denver installation is her largest piece to date.
The area Martin is painting over in Denver was first prepared with flat swaths of black and white; she’s now drawing lines across those in the opposite colors. With increased size come new challenges. In Denver, they are twofold. “A, it’s humongous,” Martin quips, and “B, I’m not used to using spray paint and knee pads.” But she’s enthusiastic and happy to see people watching and asking questions: “It’s important that it’s accessible. People come see me working. They see how hard the work is.
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“I hope it inspires people to go home and draw and start thinking about what they can do with that. And they get to interact with it every day, simply by walking over it.”
See Shantell Martin at work between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. along 14th Street, between Stout and Champa streets, through Friday, October 20, or possibly Saturday, October 21.
Martin's installations will be maintained by the district for a period of two to three years. While in the area, the DTD invites you to also scope out another project, Understudy, an experimental-arts incubator located at 890-C 14th Street, a street-facing 700-square-foot space within the Colorado Convention Center. Learn more about Understudy online.