Studio Visit: Jonathon Martin 

Artist finds an unusual inspiration — and canvas — on discarded road signs.

Jonathon Martin gives us a tour, albeit a short one, of his tiny studio apartment located just across the street from Comerica Park. “This is my kitchen, and also where I do my paintings,” he says with a laugh. Save for a partial wall partitioning off his bed, there is no distinction between where Martin lives and where he creates his art. “I’m a very visual person,” he says. “Some people say I have a grown-up teenage room.” Nearly every square inch of the walls is covered with Martin’s inspiration — classic pin-ups, flags, advertisements — and his own paintings, which synthesize all of the above. 

Perhaps a dozen road signs clutter the small space, which look much bigger when not viewed from a car. They’re adorned with hand-painted American flags and pin-up models, painted in translucent coats of acrylic with rough brush strokes. For the pin-up paintings, Martin spray paints a black holding line over the top — a process is at once evocative of both mass-production, as well as folk art.

When asked how he arrived at this style, Martin is surprisingly candid. “Essentially, I was drinking a lot,” he says. “I was black-out drunk, so I don’t remember what happened. My door was still wide-open, and there was a path of everything knocked down.” A detour sign still attached to its post was sitting in the middle of his room, and Martin could do nothing but lie (“hungover as hell”), staring at an American flag hanging above his bed.

“After a while, I was like, ‘I really should do something other than just drinking every night and just blacking out,’” he says. “I wound up telling myself that day I’m going to just start painting so at the end of the night I have something to show.” He wound up painting an American flag on that detour sign.

When asked how he now acquires the signs, Martin says every sign is different. “I don’t go to the poles and take them down,” he insists. “I’ve thought about buying new ones, but for me it’s not the same thing if it’s a new pristine sign,” he says. Most of the signs look clobbered, with scratches, dents, and nicks that lend a certain quality to them. 

For the most part, Martin’s paintings are fun and lighthearted — a sign reading “detour ahead” is painted with a woman about to remove her top. Martin appropriates vintage pin-up images he finds but also photographs female friends dressed up in the ‘40s style; to him, that era was the apex of femininity. “There’s a hidden beauty in being a little bit not so damn slutty,” he says. Martin is coy himself when it comes to a deeper reading of his paintings, especially an American flag painted over a handicap parking sign. “People [get] their own interpretations. I kind of keep them to myself,” he says. “I don’t want to be that political dude.” Martin is also a bit of a World War II history buff, and his paintings are reminiscent of the pin-ups painted on the side of bombers as well.

For now, Martin is wrapping up his final semester as part of the advertising program at the College for Creative Studies, for which he was awarded the prestige of “Senior Select,” or the top student in his department. He wants a career in advertising (“Who doesn’t want to be Don Draper?” he asks) but says he’ll continue to paint as well.

“People in the industry like to see stuff that you do outside of advertising. My painting is my passion,” he says. “When I have a long day or a bad day, this is my escape. Put on some music, grab a six-pack and paint — I’m in heaven.” 

Jonathon Martin’s work will be featured in the College for Creative Studies Student Exhibition. The exhibition opens Friday, May 16, and runs until May 30.

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