Savvy millennial has found a new way of looking at life
Aaron Martin doesn’t fit the stereotype of millennials. The 26-year-old artist and musician is utterly lacking in the sense of entitlement or expectation of easy praise that his generation supposedly carries in abundance. Not only is he not staring constantly into a smart phone screen, he also has a surprising answer when you ask for his phone number.
“I don’t even have a phone,” he says. “That’s another reason I’m so happy. I’m totally into working on art right now or working on music. My break from what I love to do is doing something else I love, and I think a lot of that focus has to do with not having a phone. My phone broke in October and I haven’t replaced it yet. My friends hate it, but I’m holding off for as long as I can.”
Since moving to Nashville in 2011, Martin has steadily built an impressive reputation and a prolific resume as a creative force in both art and music. On the art side, his intricate and psychedelic pen and ink art has appeared in gallery showings and become a favorite with indie rockers. He’s created posters, album covers, and other artwork for scores of bands, including Birdcloud, Blackfoot Gypsies, Diarrhea Planet, The Ettes, Hellbender, The Kingston Springs, The Jag, Alanna Royale, and TORRES.
As a musician, he was bass player for local rockers Sol Cat, appeared on the web series 24HR Records as a member of the ad hoc band, The Love & Terror Cult, and is currently collaborating with members from several Nashville bands in the local indie rock supergroup Okey Dokey.
It’s an impressive list of accomplishments to achieve in just five years, especially for someone who grew up with no particular focus on becoming an artist or musician. Martin spent his childhood and teenage years in Monterey, Tenn., a small rural town about 15 miles east of Cookeville.
“It was a beautiful place to grow up,” he says. “I got along with almost everybody — played football in high school, had some interest in art, music, and drama. People ask me all the time if I always wanted to do art. I wish I could say I did, but I never really thought about it.
“My first time around at college, I majored in engineering at Tennessee Tech. My dad wanted me to have a solid career that would take care of me, but that didn’t work out. When it was time to be honest about everything, I realized I wanted to go to art school.”
That moment of honesty came as the result of tragedy.
“My dad was never sick in his whole life,” Martin says. “He found out he had cancer in the summer of 2010, and then four months later, he was gone. I got more serious about my goals after he passed away. I moved to Nashville and started figuring out exactly what I wanted to do with art.”
Enrolling at Watkins College of Art, Design & Film for the 2011 spring semester, Martin soon discovered commercial art wasn’t the direction for him.
“I had two professors that saw pretty quick how frustrated I was,” he recalls. “They were like, you don’t turn your homework in, but you bring the stuff you actually want to work on to class. They suggested I just quit school and go do it for myself. I really appreciated that.” The work that Martin wanted to do was complex, detailed pen and ink work. It’s a medium that appealed to him on many levels.
“I think what attracted me to pen and ink is that if you do fuck up, you can turn it into something else with black and just move on. After my dad died, the idea that I could take screw-ups or misfortunes and turn them into something else became very important to me.”
His free-flowing, psychedelic style is part of the same process of not worrying about individual details and letting the work find its own form through the process of creation.
“Sometimes a piece may be based on a theme or idea, but mostly just starts from small elements — eyes, a mouth, a letter, or some other element and then I just go for it,” Martin says.
While attending Watkins, he struck upon a unique showcase for his artwork, one that built a network of connections for him in the local art and music communities.
“When I first moved to Nashville, I wasn’t interested in playing music, but I wanted to be part of the scene,” he says. “I would approach bands, send them some of my artwork and say, hey, I really dig your music. I had some money left from when my dad died, and I didn’t want to just waste it, so I started sponsoring free shows. I would work out a trade with bands. I would do artwork for them, and they would play a show for me.”
The connections he made through house party concerts led to art commissions from many bands, and raised the profile of his work. It also led to a second form of creative expression.
“I met the guys in Sol Cat through my buddy Jan, who played guitar with them,” Martin says. “I started doing artwork for the band and was hanging out with them a lot. Johny Fisher [the band’s keyboardist and guitarist] called me one day and said they needed a bassist and that I was it.”
Although Martin had played guitar since he was 14, he had never seriously considered a music career. It took some convincing, but within a short time he joined the band, playing on their first album, Sol Cat (2013), and the national tour that followed. After playing with the band throughout 2013, he discovered that being a full-time rock & roller left little time for his primary passion.
“I finally hit a point where I wasn’t doing art anymore,” Martin says. “I also wanted to make a different type of music, so I quit near the end of 2013. But it was fine with everyone, and we’ve all stayed friends. Just recently I started working on a new music project with Johny Fisher called Okey Dokey — all the other members are from other bands in town. It’s a big collective thing.”
Martin’s appreciation for working with a collective of creative people also manifested in his artwork. Shortly after leaving Sol Cat, he began working with the local artist collective known as The Creek Orthodox Indians for Christ, or Creek for short. With that group and other artists, Martin has worked on murals at 901 Marina St. in East Nashville, Halcyon Bike Shop, Queen Ave Art Collective, Mustard Tower Studios, and The Basement East. Although wall murals might appear to be a very different medium, the journey from intricate crosshatching with ink to painting large with enamels isn’t that far of a jump.
“With murals, I approach it with the idea that I’m just using a bigger pen,” he says. “I just let it happen — trust your eyes and hands to take you to the right place.”
Trusting his eyes, hands, and instincts has enabled Martin to build a successful career while going against the grain of standard 21st century marketing wisdom. Though he maintains a Facebook page and Instagram account, his online profile remains very low; he prefers to build real world social connections rather than virtual social networks. It may make him seem especially business savvy, but he doesn’t think of his accomplishments in commercial terms.
“I feel more like I’m community savvy,” he says. “All my success has been through word of mouth and just being around in the scene. Every opportunity I found since I came to Nashville has been a result of that attitude of picking up on what I can find around me. When I moved here, I didn’t want just a new life, I wanted a new personality, and that meant I had to find a new way of looking at life.”
Martin’s different attitude applies equally to both the joys and tragedies of life.
“I miss my father, of course,” he says, “but I’m really not sad about losing him anymore. If he hadn’t passed away, I would probably be in the middle of nowhere working at a nothing job. While I would love for him to still be here, I think he’d be excited about the person I’ve become.”