Activation spotlight: Ben Sheppee and Shantell Martin take over building C1


We talk to the artists about making it in the art-world, their advice for those starting out and what’s next on the horizon.

Design District’s October activation brought together two artists who are no strangers to pushing boundaries. For ‘Side by Side,’ Shantell Martin and Ben Sheppee — who first met in Tokyo in 2007 — combined previous work with new projects as well as producing collaborative pieces. Side by Side brought augmented reality, animation, installation and lots of drawing to Design District.

Meet Shantell Martin

Shantell Martin’s hugely popular murals and performance drawings — typically made using an effortless drawn line — have led her to collaborate with artists and institutions such as Kendrick Lamar, the New York City Ballet, Tiffany & Co., Puma, Adidas, the Whitney, Playboy and most recently The North Face. She has exhibited at museums including the Denver Art Museum, Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts and MoMA. Originally from our part of town, Shantell is now based in New York City.


Design District (DD): Hello Shantell, it’s great to be able to welcome you to the neighbourhood. Firstly, do you remember a moment when you knew that being an artist was what you wanted to do with your life?

Shantell Martin (SM): It's more a combination of many moments knowing what I didn't want to do with my life. In a way those moments eventually led me to where I am now. I made a YouTube series with filmmaker Andrew Fuchs about becoming an artist. The first episode describes growing up as a queer, mixed-race girl in Thamesmead, just down river from Greenwich Peninsula.

DD: One of the biggest challenges of working in the creative industries can be finding the support you need. What kind of support do you wish you’d had more of starting out?

SM: There are probably so many things that could be helpful, but I wish I had been educated about what to expect working as an artist in the real world — things like business know-how, strategy, taxes, agreements, consignments, etc.

DD: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced getting to where you are today?

SM: Not having a clear path or model. You're kind of like a ship out at sea and it's seemingly expected that you know what you're supposed to do every step of the way.

DD: And the biggest reward?

SM: Being able to share my achievements with friends and family and seeing how they inspire both younger and older generations to do what they love.

DD: What advice would you give to young people looking to make it as an artist?

SM: It's an absurd career. If you can do something else, do it. Especially if you aren’t prepared to work really, really, really, hard.

DD: What’s next?

SM: The Boston Ballet commissioned me to create my first ballet titled ‘Kites’ that will open at the Boston Opera House in March 2022. I've choreographed the work and developed the concepts for the costume and  stage design. It's been an extremely rewarding collaborative experience and I'm really excited about being able to share it with everyone.


Meet Ben Sheppee

Ben Sheppee has been part of the visuals and AR scene for over twenty years. His work is recognisable for its minimalist abstraction — using the play between structure, light, and graphics to create new worlds. He’s exhibited at major arts venues including Tate Britain, National Portrait Gallery and San Francisco MOMA.

Design District (DD): Hello Ben, we’re really excited about your upcoming show with Shantell Martin. Could you tell us a bit about how your career as an artist got started?

Ben Sheppee (BS): I started projecting graphics in nightclubs while studying at university in London — experimenting with 3D screen setups and video. I then travelled to San Francisco and became involved with a community doing events in galleries and nightclubs which led to me publishing and distributing artists’ work on DVD. With some success in the US, I set up an office in Japan to break into what was then the largest market for DVD sales. In all I curated 240 films by over 70 artists from across five continents.

DD: What kind of support do you wish you’d had more of starting out?

BS: In art school at that time they didn’t educate you on how to price work, connect with galleries or create a business model for taking on what is a very competitive and challenging marketplace. A better overview of how to take your creativity out into the world would have been a great help.

DD: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced getting to where you are today?

BS: Ultimately it’s learning how to run a company and not get caught up in doing so. My ambitions as an artist naturally draw me to larger projects and wanting to engage with bigger audiences. To get there alone is very challenging so I’ve had to build a team around me. Making business decisions is not my forte as my instinct is just to create. 

DD: And the biggest reward?

BS: Each time my work is publicly recognised it's rewarding, be it in a magazine, on television or just reviews online. That kind of recognition underlines and justifies your efforts. But maybe the biggest reward nowadays is having time to think. Life is a constant balancing act between commercial work and my own visual practice, as well as being a father. 

DD: What advice would you give to young people looking to make it as an artist? 

BS: Prepare yourself for the long game. Creativity can be incredibly satisfying as a career if you play it right. But you have to approach it in the same manner as any other career: work harder, remain studious and deliver results. If you're persistent, focused and slightly obsessive then I think it's a career that gives you great mental health. I certainly don't feel like I need to retire as long as I can keep exploring new aesthetics.

DD: Tell us your impressions of Design District. 

BS: The mix of architecture and the great location of the buildings will inspire those who work among them. I think it's a very attractive and well designed collection of livable sculptures. I’m due to move into a studio space in the coming weeks and I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of community resides there. I’m sure it will attract a mix of quirky and diverse creatives and the conversations that take place in the courtyards between the buildings will generate substantial ideas for the future.

DD: What’s next?

Just to surround myself with a great team of designers and proactive project managers so that ideas can flow and reach their full potential. From there lots of things will unfold naturally.