Life & Business

Challenging Convention and Blazing Your Own Trail with Shantell Martin

by Sabrina Smelko


What do you do when the trails blazed before you aren’t ones you’re interested in taking? You forge your own — or at least that’s what Shantell Martin did. As an artist who didn’t fit the box of either commercial illustration work or being a gallery artist, Shantell decided to ignore convention and invented her own stream of practice: one that combines fine art, technology and performance art, with an emphasis on the everyday experience.

Since learning to navigate life with dyslexia, traveling to Japan to work as an underground performance artist, moving to New York, and honing her visual voice, she’s received recognition from Vogue, The New York Times, Fortune, Fast Company, Elle Canada, and more.

Best known for her light projection work and stream-of-consciousness continuous line drawings, Shantell is also a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (where she was a former Artist in Residence, along with MIT Media Lab). Today, she’s joining us to chat more about her unique process, the importance of finding a good lawyer, and learning how to recognize the waves of success to better ride them at the highs — and the lows. –Sabrina

Portrait by Aqua Stone Throne

Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?

As an artist, I have a very unique vision of where I would like my work to take me. It’s a more personal journey than most, and one that will have many evolutions along the way, and I would like to be in a position where I can enable and facilitate these changes. I also am not sure where I would see myself working in someone else’s company.

Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was, and how did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I’m still not fully convinced that I know what my field of work is. When I was younger, I thought that art was for rich or lucky people. It never occurred to me at a young age that the lucky people worked really hard to be where [they were] in life. The field I’m in now as an artist is one that I’ve been navigating in a very untraditional way. As an artist working outside of the gallery system, I’ve found myself creating new models as to how this all works as a business. We as people like to put things in boxes, and my interest and direction seem to constantly want to join or break out of these boxes. I simply knew I wanted to create, had a need to make, and could not really see myself doing anything else.

Photo By Catalina Kulczar

Photo above: Catalina Kulczar

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

I’ve yet to have it. A friend did tell me once, though, that everything comes in waves, so ride it when it’s on a high and use the lows to regroup and collect. This has stuck with me.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

You’re never really sure where to actually start. It’s important to get a good lawyer that can help you set everything up in the right way and can tell you what you need or don’t need.


Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

Invest in a lawyer and don’t sign anything until it’s been looked over. Companies will chuck “standard contracts” at you right, left and center. They are doing this to protect themselves and there is not usually much in there that will protect your business. You’re more likely giving away a lot more than you thought. I learned this the hard way.

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?

Not sure if there have been any straight-up failures; there has [definitely] been a learning curve, which has taken a lot of time, effort and money to figure out.

If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?

Only three? I’d most likely spend them sleeping.

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

I’m not sure I’d call it a sacrifice, but when you start up your own business, in a way, you are giving up a lot of security, with regards to potentially not have an instant stream of cash coming in, etc.

Photo Courtsey of Saks Fith Ave

Photo above: Courtsey of Saks Fifth Ave.

Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?

Not sure yet, I enjoy the fact that my business is always growing and expanding. Still need to get to that point where I actually have employees — that will be a bit of a milestone for me when I get there.

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

As an artist, there are a bunch of great books out there that guide you to what paperwork you need to have for work and examples of different models you could follow.

Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.

Basically, if it’s a good fit, do it — and if it’s not, leave.

Photo By Paul Barbera

Photo above: Paul Barbera

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

1. Make sure it’s something you actually, really want to do.

2. Create a checklist of everything that you need to get it started right.

3. Have an idea of where you want the business to go and to take you.

What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?

It depends. If I wake up in super work-mode then I head straight to my emails and if not, I’ll see what’s going on with Instagram and Facebook first — almost as a warm-up for the day.

What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?

The hard stuff is knowing what you need and how to stay on top of things like taxes, contracts and actually following [up] to get paid for projects. Time after time, you will do all that you have agreed to (and in the time that you agreed to do it, or be there, etc.), but that rarely works both ways.

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  • Great interview! Thanks for keeping it real, I hope I can be one of the Lucky ones as well. Hard work will hopefully pay off, your work is amazing Shantell.

  • Shantell, what you said. “Make sure it’s something you actually, really want to do.” I think this is the MOST important for staying motivated and being able to weather through those “learning curves.”