Ever since my high school creative writing class, I’ve loved stream-of-consciousness writing. It feels real, expressive, limitless. And when I watch artist Shantell Martin work, I see authenticity. Plain and simple, as she states in this video for The New Yorker:

“When there’s interaction between me and the paper, there’s something very special about keeping it black-and-white…You can’t hide.”

Part illustration, part design, installation, and performance, Martin’s work is black-and-white poetry in motion. She draws on literally everything: walls, clothes, shoes, cars, people, and with her recent collaboration with designer Kelly Wearstler, Martin made furniture and pieces of marble her canvas. The one-of-a-kind collection—and the mural she created for Wearstler’s West Hollywood store—grabbed the attention of media far and wide.

Kelly Wearstler and Shantell Martin. Photo by Therese + Joel.
Kelly Wearstler and Shantell Martin. Photo by Therese + Joel.

The London-born artist, who now calls Harlem home, grew up the oldest of five blue-eyed, blond siblings. With her brown skin and Afro, Martin would ask herself, “Who are you?” This exploration of identity would later become the foundation for much of her work, including “Dear Grandmother,” a collaboration with her grandmother Dot Martin, who embroidered Shantell’s “Half White” series—currently on view in “Crossing Brooklyn” at the Brooklyn Museum.

“The work I create feels so relevant to my life now,” says Martin. “It’s very free and spontaneous, yet there is an underlying theme of ‘me’ always present. That’s my style, my voice.”

From Dear Grandmother

Her process is simple: black marker on white surface. “As I put a pen down onto a surface, all previous planning goes out the window. The pen is the boss, and it flows and travels wherever it wishes to,” she says. “The goal is not to resist but to assist.”

And that takes trust—and time. “Over the years, I’ve grown in confidence and have become more willing to share my voice.”

You might think Martin would have difficulty applying this organic creative process to client work, but it’s quite the opposite. Before approaching a commissioned piece, she says, “I really enjoy getting to know more about the details specific to the environment, the space, who will be viewing it, visuals cues, etc. If the audience is able to see, in some way, a bit of their own journey, neighborhood, likes, and thoughts, the piece becomes continuously relevant to the viewers.”

Currently a visiting scholar at MIT Media Lab where she’s exploring an analysis of her drawings and collaborating on projects, Martin is finishing the year with two private wall commissions. In 2015, she’ll teach Drawing on Everything, a graduate studio class at ITP/NYU. More residences, lectures, and a fellowship at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, Columbia University, are also on the horizon.

When I asked Shantell what inspires her, she showed me some words she jotted down during a recent flight:

Do you know forgiveness?
Do you know hope?
Do you know compassion?
Do you know love?
Do you know faith?
Do you know kindness?

The list gave me pause. And then she added, “This list could go on and on…I have so much to learn.”