An Interview with Shantell Martin and Ben Sheppee

October 16, 2021

Have you always aspired to create art, or did you discover your calling later in life?

Shantell: Don’t know if I’ve always been inspired to create art, but I’ve always been inspired to explore and create as a tool for extracting feelings and exploring the many questions in my mind.

Ben: Art has been my subject since the age of 12 when my grandad gave me a full set of pencils. I used to listen to music and sketch all day, so it’s fair to say it’s part of my wiring. I’m left-handed as well which may add to the reason…that part of my brain is probably a bit more active than 90% of the population.

Did you study art as a student or are you self-taught?

S: I studied art in school (at CSM), but I wouldn’t say that art school taught me art. It taught me discipline and how to explore and how to learn from my peers, etc.

B: I studied a mix of Fine Art and Graphic design which gave me a lot of conceptual theory and an eye for composition, but my main interest then and my core skill set now is predominantly animation which wasn’t something that was offered at my university. I got into the habit of teaching myself stuff fairly early on and that’s really helped me adapt with technology too. As new digital environments emerge it was second nature to go and figure them out.

Credit: Shantell Martin

What artist or artists informed your development? And what artists do you look to now for inspiration?

S: It’s interesting, I grew up watching cartoons and animated films and always like to credit that as my introduction to art and what’s probably made the most impact on my creative self, early-on.

B: In the early 2000’s I was living in San Francisco, around the time that the VJ art movement was gaining momentum. It had a big influence on me and I teamed up with a few artists to get involved in lots of events there. It was a community of artists there who were practising light-based arts with liquid light, slide and video projectors. We’d meet each week and share new content we’d been working on and figure out any new gear.

What was a pivotal moment in the evolution of your work?

S: I’m actually creating/choreographing my first ballet for The Boston Ballet and that has been an absolutely unexpected evolution of my work that I’m really enjoying. We will have a world premiere at the Boston Opera House in March 2022.

B: Once my work had become digital, I started to use lots of algorithms in my approach to design, and this gave me the option to propagate many options within a given look very quickly. This formulaic approach felt efficient and left part of the creation to nature or chance, which resonated with my interest in the Fluxus art movement and some of the automation concepts of the Beat Generation poets. From here I began curating my looks and selecting the best outcomes from generative design.

Credit: Ben Sheppee

Tell us about your process. Do you begin with an image or a concept?

S: It depends on the project. Typically, it begins with questions.

B: Most recently I’ve become interested in processes which involve disrupting digital processes, and there I’m seeking out new aesthetics or “happy accidents” which form the base of new designs. Essentially, I like finding glitches and taking them for a proper ride to see where they go visually.

What informs your work? As a visual artist, are you inspired by music, film, science, literature or other art forms?

S: I’m always inspired by the environment that I’m creating in or for. That usually plays a big role in what I’m working on. 

B: Well, I feel like I have a fairly good knowledge of art history, and ultimately the goal is to get the art of this generation into a different place and create something new and different to that which has come before. That is why there is currently a generous amount of interest in digital art movements, and personally it’s the reason that I am quite drawn towards generative computer-based processes as this is a relatively new branch conceptually and aesthetically.

Credit: Shantell Martin
What was the most challenging project that you worked on?

S: Every project comes with its own challenges, and I’ve learned to really embrace that aspect and to expect it so that I can be as prepared as possible.

B: Recently I worked on a series of projection mapping installations across 5 buildings in the City of King’s Lynn (UK). The theme of that project was reversing the effects of climate change. I had to take a hard look at my carbon footprint whilst making the project, considering everything I do is computer-based and sometimes fairly resource intensive power-wise when it comes to using computers to build the animation. It hurts my head thinking about it too much and ultimately, I came out of that project vegan – it was the only way I could live with myself.

What do you enjoy most about the work you do?

S: I’ve learned so much from the opportunities that art has given me and the collaborators I’ve been blessed to work with, and this continual growth is probably my favorite part about creating.

B: My time is split between commercial production for clients (executing someone else’s project), and my personal art (exploring my visual passions), so for me the enjoyment in my own practice is experimenting and finding something there that turns me on visually. The holy grail is new aesthetics or new processes that might trigger a series of some kind.

Credit: Ben Sheppee

How do you think NFTs will change the future for artists?

S: Not too sure, I think hopefully it will lead to positive change that allows artists to create with more freedom and more support. Guess that’s more of a hope that a thought 🙂

B: Personally speaking, it currently feels like there are two art worlds; the controlled and curated physical galleries and then there’s the decentralised digital spaces which are quite raw, chaotic, and grassroots oriented. There is still somewhat of a divide between everything that is happening in the NFT space, and the more traditional environments that host physical art.

With the flurry of activity that’s been taking place with NFTs over the last couple of years, I believe there is enough momentum for this movement to transpire into quantifiable interest in traditional art environments. Photography first struggled to gain recognition in the galleries before becoming more widely accepted.

In a similar way I hope that art galleries eventually learn to digitize and reach wider audiences by making their physical spaces available digitally through virtual walkthroughs for example. In the progressive rise of NFTs we’ve seen more virtual environments popping up in an effort to showcase these works in a presentable manner online, almost emulating the physical space that galleries offer.

Shantell Martin and Ben Sheppee

Shantell Martin is one of today’s most groundbreaking multimedia artists. Known for her ongoing exploration of the vast potential of the drawn line, below the surface of her signature black and white drawing is an exploration of the reciprocal relationship between artist and viewer, in which a work of art is more than an object of admiration. Exploring themes such as intersectionality, identity, and play, Shantell is a cultural facilitator, forging new connections between fine art, education, design, philosophy, and technology.

Ben Sheppee (b.1978, Bristol, UK) has been part of the visuals and AR scene for over twenty years. His works lean towards minimalist abstraction, creating worlds where the elemental play of structure, light, and icon compete for the leading role. In San Francisco he set up one of the first VJ labels, publishing his art alongside the work of others under the name ‘Lightrhythm Visuals’. In this 12-year project he released over 240 films by 70 artists, screening and exhibiting work internationally and launching the careers of many emerging creators. He currently continues to exhibit, publish and create as an artist and art director at Observatory, a visual arts company that specializes in light-based arts for unique events in London.