Traci Wright Martin
‘Artists can change the conversation and inspire change.'
Traci Wright Martin moved to Greenville, South Carolina a year ago, and works from a shared studio in The Bank Building. People, animals and insects inhabit her striking charcoal and mixed media artworks. Patterns and colour serve to contrast and highlight the tonal realist drawings.
Where is your current studio? What would be your dream studio?
I live and work in Greenville, SC. I am part of a group of four women who recently opened The Bank Building Studios in the Village of West Greenville arts district. I absolutely love my studio. My dream would include having a second one in a big, bright space on a remote part of the Oregon coast, overlooking the ocean.
Do you prefer to work in silence or does certain music inspire you?
I work differently each day. One day I’ll be in the mood for total silence and the next I might blast The White Stripes or Lizzo. My taste in music ranges from Chopin and Broadway soundtracks to M83, Damien Rice and Queen. Lately, I’ve been switching back and forth between a nice, melancholy Manchester Orchestra playlist on Spotify and streaming reruns of favorite shows like “The Office” or “Schitt’s Creek” in the background.
Studio life can lead to isolation, how do you address this/ keep a balance?
During my first year here in Greenville, I fully embraced my isolation and just produced work. I took advantage of not knowing anyone in this new place, and I just focused all my energy on making art. It was fantastic. My husband and I would explore our new city on the weekends and slowly start to attend openings and visit the galleries. I gave myself that one year, but it was long enough to be without a local artist network. I was excited to jump in refreshed and establish myself in the art community with a new studio. The working balance is perfect now with my studio mates. We all come and go, without a schedule, but we catch each other often for input and discussion about our work. The sense of community is invaluable.
Describe a moment you had an epiphany concerning your creative life.
I was really fortunate to attend a private school in my childhood in Oregon where I was introduced to a solid foundation in fine art media. I still attribute my love of charcoal to that early introduction when I was so young. My family moved to Oklahoma in my high school years, and I didn’t have the same access to good art classes. I saved my supplies when we moved and continued to practice some of the skills I had learned. During my senior year of high school, I created a charcoal and pastel drawing of a tiger on my own time at home that I was quite proud of. I brought it in to show the high school art teacher and he encouraged me to submit it to a regional show for high school students at the nearby university. It wound up winning that show and providing me with a small scholarship to join that university’s art program in the fall. That was a major breakthrough moment that changed the course of my future. Before that event, I hadn’t developed a confidence in my work yet or even considered the idea of pursuing art professionally.
What is your favourite/ least favourite part of the creative process?
My favorite part of the creative process is the moment when you feel all the components of a piece come together and the connection is made. I love adding the final touches to finish off the process. So rewarding.
Overwhelmingly, my least favorite part of artmaking is assigning a price and marketing it once the work is ready to put out there. It is often the most common struggle I hear from my fellow artists. I’d love nothing more than to make the work, and never have to think of its current value or how to get it to the right audience or when it’s time to change my pricing. There is such a disconnect between thinking of your work in a spiritual way during the creative process and then turning around and having to treat it as a product with an assigned value. It gets easier and easier to shift into that space, but I think it will always be a challenge.
Do you have a personal mantra or quote which serves to motivate you?
“Creativity takes courage.” - Matisse
How has your style evolved and what contributed to the changes?
My first love is charcoal, primarily studying portraiture and the figure, and it has remained the foundation of my work for some time. In my early years as a student, I saw charcoal so often used as a layer for a painting or a preparatory sketch for a work in another medium. Within this setting, I saw an opportunity to push charcoal as a finished look. I worked on tightening up the realism and pushing my technique further and further with this difficult and stubborn medium. Once I built a solid technique and spent years working in charcoal alone, I wanted to explore the possibilities of mixed media. It started slowly with the addition of liquid gold leaf elements with the black and white drawing. Eventually, I began to use color pastels and patterned paper collage elements. This has allowed for a whole world of experimentation, combining realism with abstract elements and redefining compositional space. I have developed an identity with my work by keeping my charcoal style as the anchor and leaving room to explore any and all mixed media methods. The possibilities are endless and the identity at the root of my work remains intact.
Describe an obstacle you have faced and how did you overcome it.
I am one of the many people suffering from depression and anxiety disorder. At times, the panic attacks and anxiety have been crippling. There were seasons of my life that I could work on nothing but managing my symptoms. While I have developed tools through counseling and recovery and found medication that works for me, it is still something that I have to make room for and deal with in my life. It can be a heavy burden at times, but it has made me who I am. I honestly don’t think I could create the work that I do without the perspective that these experiences have given me. I am more empathetic and sensitive to the world around me, and I honestly have to focus on that and find gratitude during the times when it’s most disruptive and painful. Turning to my art in difficult times has been really therapeutic.
Nature versus nurture- do you believe you have inherited abilities from creative parents, do you have creative siblings? Can you identify environmental factors or influences which led to your choices or directions?
This requires a layered response. I believe I was born with a curiosity and a creative mind. I have photos of myself in a high chair as a toddler, using crayons, as happy as I could be. From my earliest memories, I was entertained by drawing for hours. I definitely inherited a willingness to work hard and a sensitivity to the world around me.
With that at my core, I definitely needed the encouragement of the adults in my life. I was really lucky as a very young kid, to have two sets of grandparents that both dedicated the lowest drawer in their kitchens to art supplies and miscellaneous creative items. I had access to the tools I needed, and every one of these people enabled my creative spirit.
I watched my grandmother produce beautiful landscapes in oil. I watched my mom make anything she set her mind to, from sewing clothes for us to painting murals in our rooms to drawing cartoons for me to color. I watched my dad sit at a drafting table and draw house plans that he would then go on to build himself with stunning craftsmanship. I watched my grandfather make birdhouses and ornaments and furniture for us in his woodshop. I watched my uncle design cartoons, produce graphic design work for clients, make characters out of clay to create stop-motion movies, and take the time teach me to draw some of my favorite gaming characters. I felt like such a grownup when he would let me use his fancy markers to color in my primitive little kid drawings. I was constantly affirmed and encouraged.
I paid attention to every aspect of each of their respective creative processes. I watched them work hard and create work with substance and function. I know that inspired me and gave me a foundation and a willingness to work for what I wanted. I believe my brother felt the same and was influenced as I was. We both approach the world with a willingness to make things and create. He is an accomplished guitarist and makes incredible furniture in his own woodshop. He can build or fix anything. Our creativity was nurtured so well by the people who raised us both. In this experience, I have learned how important that is for a child. I have done and will continue to do everything in my power to facilitate and encourage my niece and nephew in their creativity.
Is there something you regard as essential to your preparation or process?
I keep a sketchbook where I save images and notes that inspire ideas. Since I am big on experimentation and mixed media, I collect papers and swatches that I might decide to work into a piece at a later time. In the sketchbook, I write ideas, descriptions, quick pencil sketches, and the beginnings of artist statements or concepts. The more advanced “sketching” stage for me is often done digitally as I prepare the composition that will be used as a reference photo for the finished work. The approach for each piece is always different. Sometimes I begin with a patterned paper or a color palette as inspiration. Sometimes the model is all that matters to convey a theme, and the colors and patterns are secondary and decided spontaneously. I do heavy preparation, but I always leave room to abandon ideas and go different directions in the moment. I never like to box myself in from the beginning of a piece.
Detail a moment which was the highlight for you, thus far.
I spent a lot of time in recent years producing portrait commissions for clients and teaching drawing workshops. I occasionally sent work to some juried shows here and there around the country, but mostly focused regionally on shows in Oklahoma and Texas where I lived and worked for many years. This last year, in the fall, was the first time I entered a show in NYC. I got in and placed 3rd. The show was juried by some incredible and prominent figurative artists. This was a huge moment for me. I felt like the work I’d been developing and producing was validated and ready to send out into larger markets. I had joined PoetsArtists prior to that but hadn’t yet felt ready to enter the shows. I had been scoping out some galleries to contact and submit to find representation, but I hadn’t started the process. That experience was an important shift for me and really set the next stage of my career in motion.
If you could time travel, what advice would you give the younger you, regarding pursuing your artmaking?
Work more often and try everything. Stay well-rounded and play sports and do things that you enjoy, but spend more time experimenting with fine art methods and learning your craft early. Don’t be nervous to put your work out there to be critiqued and/or affirmed.
How does your work respond to social trends?
My series “Art Herstory and the Moth” is the culmination of years studying the contributions of women in the arts and experimenting in mixed media methods. While the pieces were in their infancy in my sketchbooks at the time, the Women’s March in 2017 began a massive cultural conversation that coincided with some of the key content I was exploring in my work. Over these last few years, we’ve been seeing more of a focus on women’s art in museum collections and exhibitions. I’m happy that the themes in this body of work can contribute to that ongoing conversation in any way, however small or large. I find that continuing to explore these topics is a way to both celebrate the progress and punctuate the need for continued momentum.
Another key component in my portrait and figure work is representation. I have a desire and a responsibility to further pursue inclusion and diversity in my subject matter. I want to see a wider range of models in figurative art in general. A lot of the established “beauty standard” in modeling caters to young, white females with a societal “ideal” in body type. While I love the work I see from fellow artists featuring these models, I feel like contemporary figurative art should strive to reflect more of what our culture looks like. I didn’t see enough representation throughout my education as a young artist, or as a young girl going to my first museums. I paint and draw the women I wish I would’ve seen then and the ones I want to see now. While my current body of work is featuring women, I continue to plan new work to utilizing models across a broader cultural spectrum.
I feel like now, more than ever, artists need to press into important social trends and continually do everything we can to elevate the conversation.
What do you hope to convey through your work?
So much of what I hope to convey is highlighted in this conversation on representation. I want my viewers to see themselves reflected in my work. I want to create something that makes people feel understood and seen. I want them to know that I’m always listening and always learning. I’m trying my best to make a safe space for meaningful connection.