In Her Return to Denver, Shantell Martin Draws All Over the Denver Art Museum

Two years ago, the sidewalks near the Convention Center were painted with black-and-white lines and words by the British-born, New York-based artist Shantell Martin. For that project, Martin came to Denver on an invitation from the Denver Theatre District, but this time around, the Denver Art Museum (DAM) invited her.

READ: Shantell Martin Painted Sidewalks in Downtown Denver

It’s fitting that Martin came to Denver two years ago, planting a metaphorical seed in many local art lovers’ minds. Her installation at the DAM, titled Words and Lines, is all about planting “seeds” — seeds of positivity, hope, questions and inspiration. And as her sidewalk painting degrades with weather, foot traffic and with patching of sidewalk concrete, her impact in Denver moves in the opposite direction. It’s almost as if Martin doesn’t want Denver to forget about her yet.

Shantell Martin inside her elevator at the Denver Art Museum

Although the main part of her installation in the DAM is on the second floor of the Hamilton Building, pieces of her iconic black linework and words are scattered throughout the museum. In past installations, Martin has actually drawn all over walls, ceilings, floors and more, but this time she created vinyl stickers to spread the artwork throughout the space. Visitors are greeted by the words “Do Less” and “Be More” above the front desk and — if you’re lucky to catch it — an entire elevator where you are literally surrounded by Martin’s drawings.

“I’m a big fan of creating the work but not giving all the narrative,” Martin explained. “What I like about this [installation] is that I’m not restricted to one space — the work is throughout the museum. I like to talk about the words as seeds, and so now there are seeds scattered throughout the museum… I hope it inspires people to not be constrained to a frame or a wall.” And her work is certainly not constrained to a single wall or space — with small pieces on columns and near other exhibits. Martin added with a chuckle, “it’ll also be a nice contrast to Monet,” speaking about the upcoming Claude Monet exhibition that is highly anticipated in more traditional art circles. 

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The main pieces of Words and Lines are found in the angled space on the second floor known as the Precourt Family Discovery Hall. In this pocket of the museum, Martin has installed an interactive piece that is best described as a Wheel of Fortune-esque cabinet that allows participants to switch letters, lines and objects in order to make different combinations.

“It’s always nice to imagine something like this piece. There’s a game to it, and people will want to interact with it. I’m happy that people will work with lines and words and objects and I think this is the first time that all of those elements I work with have come together,” she commented. “Being someone who is dyslexic, I’ve had an interesting relationship with words and the baggage we bring with words. I often spell things wrong, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. Sometimes people can’t handle that… And there’s this idea where if you’re not going to correct my lines [as an artist], why would you correct my words [as an artist]? Do I not have the freedom to explore words? So seeing words, not as this hugely emotional thing that we attach to, but seeing them as seeds to grow and inspire, to create and extend.” 

The other part is a digital projection that loops on one of the oddly shaped walls inside the Discovery Hall, all drawn by Martin in her iconic stream-of-consciousness style. Although to new fans of her work, this digital process is new, it’s actually a rebirth of a previous passion for the artist. Before she moved to New York in 2009, Martin lived and worked in Japan for five years as a VJ — or video jockey. Accompanying DJs and musicians at clubs, she would draw animation in real-time with their sets. This, however, was a trend that didn’t make it further west (like the US) until recently. So when Martin arrived in New York a decade ago, she went from a digital artist to one who worked with pen, marker and eventually spray paint, “almost as an act of survival” she explained.

Working within the digital world again is a full-circle experience for Martin. And seeing her words and lines and faces come to life in a digital format feels right. There’s something more relatable to her work when you see it being created, line for line, than when you see an entire wall or sidewalk with her doodles already finished.

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If you don’t get enough of Martin’s work at the DAM (on view until January 2021), stop by David B. Smith Gallery before November 1 to see a concurrent exhibition by the visiting artist, titled Underlined. In that installation, Martin’s work is more confined — to canvases and other tangible items — and also for sale. For one night only on Friday, September 27, Martin will paint live at the gallery, giving viewers the opportunity to watch her subconscious, meditative style in action. 

But the two simultaneous exhibitions are connected in some ways. “At the DAM you get to see an installation and see it throughout the space, but there you can see smaller, tangible pieces,” Martin commented. “Both are a play on words and the use of words and lines, and how words are made up of lines, but we give more importance to words even though they have the same origin.” 

Words and Lines is on view at the Denver Art Museum through January 2021. Underlined is on view at David B. Smith Gallery located at 1543 Wazee Street until November 1, 2019. 

Shantell Martin will be painting live at David B. Smith Gallery on Friday, September 27 from 6 to 8 p.m.

All photography by Adrienne Thomas.