Nadja Martens

There is so much room to change and improve, always, and it’s really hard to let go. You fail all the time, you know, but you improve. Mistakes give you an opportunity to reflect.

An artist whose output is constantly evolving, Nadja Martens is a consummately thoughtful communicator. Her work—rooted in her childhood influences and her prescient observations about individuality, self-confidence, and society—is whimsical, humorous, and mysterious.

Nadja Martens hails from northern Germany, more specifically, the outskirts of Hamburg, where she was raised in the forest by her grandparents. She recalls wandering the woods in the company of the family’s two dogs, entranced by the mystery of the landscape. “Everything entertained me. The moss, the trees. I think it was the best time of my life.” The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales her grandmother told her and the animals she encountered would all go on to fuel her output many years later.

A creative child who always enjoyed art projects, it was not until she reached her 20s that she realized an artistic career would be her calling. She had attended business school in Germany, and later came to the United States as an au pair. As part of that program, she first took art classes at a local university—and that was when everything began to click.

Experiences working with children flavor her work to this day. “I like to look at children,” she says. “I like observing how they interact with the world around them.” Born of this sensibility is her best-known work: a series of multimedia pieces reflecting on Red Riding Hood’s encounter with the wolf. “You tell children not to touch the dog and what are they going to do?” she asks with a rueful smile. “They’ll touch the dog. Of course, until they get bitten.”

As is typical with Martens’ output, there are many levels on which the Red Riding Hood series operates. “It’s something like facing yourself,” she says, “and your darker impulses. I think there is a way you can satisfy both sides and confront your fears.”

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After concluding her stint as an au pair, Martens committed to her art full-time, taking arts practice classes at Foothill and De Anza colleges. She also began to dabble in other disciplines, especially philosophy and psychology. “It helps with developing concepts for the paintings,” she says, “and understanding yourself.”

These principles are at play in another of her popular works, Snow-White & Rose-Red, depicting sisters from another fairy tale. “My paintings often reflect situations in my life that I’m perhaps not aware of. The way this work is painted, it’s really cute,” Martens observes. “I recall that at the time I wasn’t really in tune with myself. I wanted to be, but I couldn’t be.” She pauses, “And I think that’s something people can relate to. We all, at times, feel separated from ourselves.”

Her more current work—including her collection Walk with Me Where No One Follows, recently exhibited at San Jose’s Kaleid Gallery—further reflects on these themes.

“I like to paint animals because they always represent something,” she says. Describing a work from that show, The Departure, she says, “Here, the bear is courage and strength. It’s a story about having faith in yourself.” She continues, “People always like to tell you ‘You need to do this. You’re reaching a certain age,’ you know? Trying to enforce all the social norms. And they may not apply to you. It can be hard to trust yourself and go with it, but you have to have faith in yourself.”

Of her creative process, Martens insists that everything is just that: a process. “Art is not a talent; it’s a practice.” She confesses, “I don’t think of my paintings as being perfect or finished. There is so much room to change and improve, always, and it’s really hard to let go. You fail all the time, you know, but you improve. Mistakes give you an opportunity to reflect.”

“I hope that I get to the essence of feelings we all share,” she says. “When you struggle, it doesn’t matter with what. It comes down to the same experience. I hope that people can identify with this, and not feel alone. That is the one thing I would love: if my work could talk to people and show them something they can connect to emotionally. In the best case, I hope I can inspire people.”

Original article appeared in Issue 8.0 Explore
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