“I create for freedom. I create for peace. I create for change. I create for self-love.”
These are the words on Seattle artist Cristina Martinez's website, June and Mars, where her paintings, prints, clothing and accessories live. If you haven't heard the name yet, you might be more familiar with the Instagram handle @sew_trill - where she shares not only her work, but her life as a mom, partner, artist, friend and woman.
"I tell the story of sisterhood, [of] being a woman of color," said Martinez. "I’m a contemporary artist highlighting people, stories, things that I feel like have to work a little bit harder for the spotlight themselves. I like to try to give those moments, or those people a little bit of extra shine - that’s kind of been part of my mission."
Ever since she was a young girl growing up in Tacoma, Martinez has felt the call to create.
"I always felt the urgency to express myself creatively, and I didn't always know what that meant," she said. "I knew that I wasn’t a writer, I knew that I didn’t like to talk to people, and so telling my story through drawings and paintings just kind of became really natural for me."
A naturally artist kid, looking for inspiration - it was a tad difficult to find examples of successful, professional artists.
"I joke a lot [that] Bob Ross used to babysit me, because my mom had me really young, and she worked really, really hard and so I spent a lot of time at home by myself," she said. "I used to watch Bob Ross on TV all the time, all day long. I remember looking at him and that was really my only example of seeing someone who was an artist professionally, and just feeling like ‘Oh that’s so far away. Here I am a woman and here’s this man and he’s on TV, how can I get to that space.'"
Mr. Ross would have undoubtedly been proud - as she grew up, she stayed in tune with her creative side, though it's taken on different art forms. She was in fashion illustration for a while (where the handle @sew_trill comes from), but she said it's all developed to lead her to the place she's at now: focused on painting.
"In my quiet moments, I’ve always felt like I was supposed to be creative and I was supposed to make art, and that’s never gone away."
While it's always been a calling, it wasn't a full-time profession until a couple years ago. As many creatives know, loving creating art and supporting yourself as an artist don't always go hand in hand.
"It got to the point where I was going to work all day long, on my lunch break I was going to the post office to ship paintings that I had made and sold, and right when I got off work I was painting all night," she said. "I was maximizing my 24 hour day, but also there just wasn't a good balance. I wasn't able to fully dedicate myself to my work, and it just got to the point where I just couldn't think about anything else. I just knew that as I got older, if I wouldn't have just tried and believed in myself to the point where I was like 'Ok, this is what I’m gonna do, and I'm gonna survive off of this, then I wouldn't be able to live with that."
But Martinez wasn't just making a decision for herself.
"I have two young kids, and I kept thinking ‘Am I gonna make them sacrifice for my art dreams' Am I going to make them struggle so I can make all these things come true?’" she said. "But I had to just change my state of mind. If this does work, and when it does work, I’ll be able to provide more experiences for them, and they’ll end up having more freedom than with me working a regular job. So all of the things that I was afraid of, and all of the reasons I continued to work for so long, as soon as I just tapped into my art, and really was able to dedicate myself to my work, I feel like I was able to reach a new level creatively that I hadn’t experienced yet. And once I did that, all of my fears just kind of started to work themselves out."
In fact, it was while at a 9-5 job that Martinez happened upon the piece that would not only give her the motivation to go full time, but become one of her favorite pieces she's ever created: Water Me.
"I created [Water Me] working in a radiology clinic - and I always say, people would call and they would be scheduling things and I wouldn't even know what body part they were talking about!" Martinez laughs. "It's like, 'Ok! I don't even know what that word means but I’m gonna get you scheduled!'"
She knew she wasn't supposed to be there, she could feel it in her bones.
"I had this stack of Post-it notes, and every day I would try and express what I was feeling, without using words," she said. "They started as self-portraits, and then it kind of just transformed into this flower face. Some days they had no petals on them, some days there were a few petals falling. I have so many Post-it notes, if anyone ever saw the whole collection of them...it's a little bit scary."
The personal nature of the drawings had her nervous to show anyone.
"I was afraid to show [it] for so long, I just didn't think anyone would get it, they wouldn't understand it, but it meant so much to me," said Martinez.
But when she did sum up the courage, the response was astounding.
"When I did finally share it, the way that people connected to it, I would say if I’ve ever had an aha moment, it would have been that," she said. "There’s now over a hundred people who have it tattooed on them! It’s just one of those things that I was really able to recognize 'Ok, this story that I am telling, other people understand this too, they know what this feels like'. I think at the end of the day, we all just want to feel connected and feel like we’re not alone."
Years later, you can still see the Water Me flower face in many of her pieces.
"That whole collection is, in my eyes, never ending, I can create a form of that face for any emotion that I’m feeling," said Martinez. "It’s kind of become one of those things where it's my job is to express it, and then it’s my audience’s job to interpret it, and I feel like it’s interpreted in so many different ways. But because it came from a moment where I was just really, really confused, it was this representation of growth and change and transition that marked such a significant part of my life. To see people connect to it in the way that they did, I believe that's really kind of what fueled everything that I’m doing now."
She has continued to create many self-portraits, a mainstay of her practice.
"I do a lot of self-portraits just because I feel like the most powerful way to tell my story is to tell it directly through my experience," she said. "However I do incorporate a lot of interactions with people around me. So even though you might see a piece that looks like a reflection of me, there’s also a lot of other people in there."
Those interactions with other people, however small, stick close to her until she is able to get it onto the canvas. It can often be a gift of inspiration, and sometimes a curse of deep empathy.
"I might go to the art store, to go get a coffee, wherever I go - and see something about someone that is very mysterious to me," said Martinez. "[It] might be a look that they gave that then makes me wonder what they’re thinking about, and my mind just kind of goes everywhere with that. I will keep that feeling or that idea with me until I express it. It doesn't go away. I've found that although it does kind of torture me a little bit, these obsessive thoughts of things and people and wondering what their story is, and what are they afraid of - I can't rest until I've expressed it. I can't let things go sometimes, but words that people say, songs that I hear, it just stays with me. When it affects me, it just stays with me until I express it. So I don't really feel like I’m ever not inspired, I just keep painting.
Less tortuous inspiration is happily provided by her kids, Marcus (9) and Marley (5) - the namesake of her online shop.
"They’re here with me every day, and so inspiration is not very far!" she laughs. "The way that their mind works is so different from mine. The other day, my daughter was at her dad’s house and it was getting dark, and she was trying to say 'I’ll see you in the morning', and instead she said 'I won’t see you again until the sky is blue and the clouds are out.' In my mind I’m like, that’s a painting! But that’s just her way of saying 'When it’s a new day, I’ll come back to your house.'"
Her strong female friendships, and falling in love - have also impacted her act. In fact, there's an incredible powerful story intertwining the two that caught the eye of the Humans of New York Instagram account, that has millions of followers where they profile little snapshots of human beings. Martinez told them the story of how, after losing her best friend (and fellow Seattle native) Leah Labelle and her boyfriend Rasual Butler in a car accident, she was struggling to continue creating. One year to the day after their funerals, Martinez convinced herself to go to an art showcase in Cleveland, one of the first she'd participated in since their deaths. She was sharing a wall with another artist, Al-Baseer Holly, who she had never met before but whose voice sounded incredibly similar to Butler's.
"I introduced myself, and told him: 'This is going to sound crazy, but your voice sounds just like my friend who passed away.' And he said: 'Do you mean Rasual?'"
Turns out, Holly knew Butler. They grew up in the same place, both from Philadelphia.
"It was just kind of this crazy full circle moment where I realize I’m meeting someone who knew my best friend’s boyfriend, who also passed away with her," said Martinez. "And I had been friends with her for years and years, and he had been friends with him for years and years - and we had never met. Now here we are, the first event that I’ve done, and we were meeting."
That evening, she returned to her hotel room and wrote a letter to LaBelle in her journal - "Leah - did you send him to me?"
Years later, the couple are still together, sharing art and life.
"We’ve made a lot of art together, [and] we’re working on a group show together," she said. "So that whole experience was kind of a life-changing moment for me."
One of their most recent pieces is a dual self-portrait, if you will - called Love and Art. It started when Martinez was working on another, larger painting - and having trouble.
"I had another blank canvas in my studio so I was like, let me just paint something that’s really, really free. I’m not going to think about it, take a break from that [other] one for a moment, and just put something on this canvas," she said. "My natural instinct is to paint a self-portrait, and I don't paint a lot of men but I was thinking of him, and wanted to make a piece of us together."
Holly lives in Los Angeles, so they don't see each other all the time.
"I painted that piece very fast, in maybe two hours, and was just really free, really connected to the canvas. I finished it and sent him a picture, he was like 'Oh this is amazing, I love it, this is crazy!'"
And that was that! For the moment. On Holly's next trip up north, the couple got an AirBnb to get away for a bit.
"We took a bunch of art stuff up there, and I had that piece with me - I said 'You should make it a collab, do your thing to it, bring your side to it,'" she said. "And he did, he just went to his side of the table, and did it so fast! It was another one of those things, he was super connected to the piece and just put his touch on it, and so once it was done - it was already such a special piece - and then him putting his part onto it took it to another level. I feel like you can feel both of our energies in the piece, it has that male energy and the female energy. We decided to release it and put prints out, and it actually has been doing really well. I’m thankful because I love that piece so much."
Another incredible piece from Martinez is called Black Lives Matter: Keep Blooming.
"Being an artist and carrying so many emotions with me all the time that do feel like they need to come out, it does get heavy," she said. "It’s not all flowers and rainbows. Sometimes, the story that I want to tell is so intense that it takes me a while to figure out how to tell it."
With that piece, Martinez got every shade of brown she owned, every paint she could find, every pastel - and put it all out.
"I just started painting. It’s one of those things where it just came from a different place," she said. "It almost feels weird to really take credit for it, because it’s like my emotions just came out and that’s what was created. I just let the paint come together. I just needed to get it out."
"I knew that people would connect to it, I didn’t know on what level but I know that they would," said Martinez. "Maybe I’ll be able to donate $500, maybe I’ll be able to donate $5,000 - I really didn't know."
She released it, and they started selling like crazy. As of the posting of this article, she's donated $20,000.
"I was so thankful. We actually are still packaging them!" she said. "I’m going to donate the proceeds from that print indefinitely, so I’ll continue to give as it continues to sell. But that piece was one where it was just me and God and my emotions."
For aspiring artists out there looking for inspiration, Martinez says it will get bumpy - it was for her at times.
"When I first decided to be a full-time artist, I won't lie the transition between having an outlet where I go for peace, [now] having that also become my means for survival, was a very difficult transition for me," she said. "How do I go here for peace, but I also have to make it work because I have to pay the bills and take care of my kids? That part of it I struggled with for a little while."
Give yourself time, grace and balance.
"If I create the things that are truly on my heart, things that I feel like I need to express, that peace is still there, it’s still my outlet," said Martinez. "And also on the other side of it, when you are really true to yourself and you are painting these stories that mean so much to you, I found that people connect, and then people want it. I’m telling this thing, it’s so genuine, and then the more people start to relate to it, and that's all how it started to work out."
As for Martinez herself, she has big things coming up! Literally. This month, she'll be unveiling a mural at the new World Trade Center in New York.
"It’s been my dream to put these Black and Brown faces on a building forever," she said of the project. "It’s a 52 foot wall, so it will be a big impact. I want to make it as powerful as I can."
If it's anything like the rest of her work, we have no doubt that it will be.