An illustrated ode to the art of affectionate surrender to the ebb and flow of existence.
By Maria Popova
“A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it,” Virginia Woolf wrote in contemplating writing and consciousness. Nearly a century later, this powerful image of the wave in the mind — the kind of poetic image which perfectly captures in words something previously unformulated and immediately makes us feel that without it “the world’s store of truth would be diminished” — inspired a collection of excellent essays by Ursula K. Le Guin.
English artist Shantell Martin offers a wonderful visual counterpart to Woolf’s famous metaphor in Wave: A Journey Through the Sea of Imagination for the Adventurous Colorist (public library) — a most unusual accordion coloring book that unfolds into a nine-foot-long continuous illustration, which began as a visual diary Martin kept when she lived in Japan.
Martin’s masterful line and wild imagination construct an inviting wonderland of whimsical creatures and psychedelic shapes, fusing the soft surrender of a dream with the active alertness of a jubilant hallucination.
I spoke with Martin about her creative process, the conceptual foundation for the book, and the largehearted personal philosophies radiating from her work.
MP:The book was inspired by your stay in Japan and the ethos behind it makes me think of the Chinese concept of wu-wei — “trying not to try,” actualization through a kind of surrender to the ebb and flow of life. Many Eastern philosophies seem to have this disposition in common. What was it about your immersion in that particular culture that catalyzed this particular project?
SM: The book is actually one of many. At the time of creating these, they acted like my diaries — I would keep one on me most of the time. Whenever I would have a spare moment — maybe waiting for a friend or riding on a train — I would draw in the book. (I should really start doing that again.) What was great about the books is that they were accordion, which meant I could draw here and there, and here and there, and then at the end connect all the lines together to be one coherent story. Over time, they became a collection of my thoughts, ideas, things I saw, and more.
One effect living in Japan had on me and my work was the idea of mastering something. I asked myself what I wanted to master and it took a while to be able to articulate what that was — but it was to master a line; to take something that we all can do and make it recognizably mine.
MP: The drawing in this book seems to have a much more detailed and intimate quality compared to your usual work — was this a deliberate decision or the organic unfolding of your style in this medium?
SM:You could say that this more detailed work is my usual work. But because it is much finer and smaller in scale, it demands your full attention — both physically and emotionally. Although my larger works have only been around for a couple of years, they are perhaps most familiar to people. They are much bigger, bolder, and easier to see — like a giant flag — and take up much of the attention. But I’ve been working on many other types of projects for a long time — from collecting objects and stories to collaborating with my grandmother to music and writing, alongside many other subtler nondrawing projects. I’m working on how I can begin to share these other areas of my art with the world.
MP: Your work radiates a kind of spirit of acceptance — acceptance of self, acceptance of the other, acceptance of the flow of life exactly as it is, even if imperfect. How does this notion of the wave, of riding the wave with a sort of affectionate surrender, relate to your personal philosophies of living?
SM: It’s constant work — constant work. There are many challenges, and also many signs and choices that are presented to us out there that can help us begin to understand. I constantly feel that I’ve just started out on my journey, that there is so much that I need to do, that there is so much yet to understand. This can feel overwhelming at times. But, to the best of our ability, we have to ride the wave. When it takes us up, ride it high, and when it brings us down, don’t fight it — lean into it.
Wave compresses in nine feet of illustration nine billion lightyears of delight. Complement it with Outside the Lines, a quirky coloring book featuring illustrations by beloved contemporary artists, and this charming Finnish coloring book about evolution, then revisit Lynda Barry’s illustrated field guide to keeping a visual diary.