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For Ennis Martin, Sci-Fi Has Space For Everyone 

Written by on January 26, 2023

“[Sci-fi is] travel without a passport. It’s movement without movement.”

– Ennis Martin

Ennis Martin is a sci-fi fanatic, illustrator and painter who uses his art to push the boundaries of how science fiction can help make sense of being human. He proves that there is space for everyone inside the world of sci-fi.  

From a young age Ennis Martin was surrounded by a rich world of sci-fi – from his mom introducing him to “Doctor Who” to knowing by heart the sound of AT-AT footsteps in The Empire Strikes Back.

“A lot of my family are low-key unapologetically nerdy,” Martin recalled. 

The Chicago South Side illustrator and painter is known for his otherworldly paintings, like whales with giant feet and various mythological figures. It’s no surprise that even as a child, as Martin recalls, he would decline coloring books, preferring to make his own lines and letting his imagination take over. His artistic skills were encouraged by his family, who constantly provided him with resources like sketchbooks and art tutors.

“My family was very big on, ‘Whatever you could do, just do it. And we’ll feed into that,'” he explained.

As Martin grew older, he moved away from drawing and illustration and gravitated toward the hip-hop and b-boy community. However, he reconnected with drawing through an introduction to graffiti. 

“Graffiti kind of got me, really pushed me away from [painting] and pulled me back into it.” Martin described. 

Photo by Makenzie Creden / Vocalo Radio, Chicago Public Media

Once he began to illustrate, his love for science fiction shone through. This passion led him to create his art show Kryptonian Dreams. Held at aRRticles Gallery in September 2022, the show used sci-fi fantasy to explore Black positive imagery. Through his art, Martin is adamant about showing younger generations that they have control over what they want to create and see in the world. 

“It’s just necessary for young people of color, whoever you are, to see yourself up on the screen… or in other forms,” Martin explained. “I’m gonna create my own, because with a paintbrush, I can do whatever I want.”

For Ennis Martin’s installment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” he describes his love for Star Wars, Chicago and the story that inspired him to create whales with feet.

Photo by Makenzie Creden / Vocalo Radio, Chicago Public Media

Where are you from?

Born and raised in Chicago, on the South Side, to be exact. 8459 S Jeffery, I went to CVS [Chicago Vocational High School].

How did you get into painting?

I used to be a B-boy, was part of a couple crews many, many moons ago. My family was very big on, “Whatever you could do, just do it. And we’ll feed into that.” A lot of my family are low-key unapologetically nerdy. My dad was heavy into sci-fi, my mom was heavy into sci-fi. As I got older, I found myself drawn to it. And one of the things my mom used to do to keep me kind of chill when we were in church was like, “Here’s a coloring book. And here’s the crayons.” I was like, “I don’t want a coloring book”… Then she would just give me paper and crayons and I would just… make my own lines, create my own little thing. There was a lot of subtle encouragements… little sketchbooks here, some pens here. They’d throw me a few little tutors over here on the South Side to go, whatever. There were just little things… and they constantly flourished the sci-fi nerd thing a lot… My mom was the one to put me on “Doctor Who.” 

Fast forward, as I get older, I kind of deviate away from the art, the painting thing, and kind of lean more into hip-hop and graffiti. Graffiti kind of got me, really pushed me away from it and pulled me back into it. My heart went straight deeper into illustration and painting, and that’s where it stayed. 

What has kept you in Chicago?

I love Chicago, it’s still my village, you know? There’s something very special about Chicago that kind of keeps me here. It’s just something, as I grow and build my routine and try to create things — I mean, I still want to travel, go other places, but Chicago is just the heart… It’s just kind of where it is. And this is a really dope city, and it’s for me. Still, I feel like people are blowing up and being discovered, I think it still has yet to… get its proper recognition. 

Everybody says, “New York, New York,” but Chicago has so much creative heat that no one really notices right away. And when it finally hits, it’s like, “Oh!” But they don’t always want to give you, like, “Yo, Chance is from here,” or, “Common’s from here.” They don’t want to say all these people are from here… Theaster Gates, all these hard-hitters are coming from Chicago… but no one, these people are like, “Oh, what? No, I don’t know what you’re talking about. LA?” Nah, no. Chicago, Chicago, Chicago. It’s a bit more real here, for me. I feel like sometimes, some places, it’s just a lot of… everybody’s popping cards, talking about who they are, who they produced, this, that and the third, but I feel like Chicago is a bit more straightforward. 

New York can be a little turned up on that, too. But I feel like Chicago has a level of realness to it. 

What themes and imagery are in your paintings?

I do a lot of stuff with character development, creatures. I’m kind of known for my whales with giant feet, it’s kind of like a thing people know me for. But also do other things, like mash-ups of sci-fi with sometimes a flip on positive imagery on people of color. And not even on a woke level. I feel like it’s just necessary for young people of color, whoever you are, to see yourself up on the screen… or in other forms. And I don’t think you can look to those other companies to put you out there, and I think, just like hip-hop culture, just like jazz, just like rock and roll, you have to create your own path at your point. Because… we can beg, we can protest, we could knock on doors and rally, but like, ain’t no corporate cast down here, they don’t care. Let them do what they do. I’m gonna do mine. That’s it. I’m gonna create my own, because with a paintbrush, I can do whatever I want. I can, I want to put Tyler, the Creator in his blonde bob on the Akira bike holding a Kaneda gun and, yeah. And it just feels good. There’s a freedom to it. So I don’t have to go ask someone’s permission to create this realm. 

Martin depicts Tyler, the Creator in his signature blonde “IGOR” wig — on the motorbike from film ‘Akira’ with a Kaneda gun — in 2022 acrylic on wood painting “ICONIC.”
Photo by Makenzie Creden / Vocalo Radio, Chicago Public Media.

You said you’re known for your paintings of whales with feet, can you tell us how that character came to be?

I was always into comic books, I was always creating these fantasy worlds and such. And I remember one time, I was in my book sketching, and I had a box with legs and tiny little eyes. And then I kept playing around with this box with legs and tiny little eyes, and I started thinking back to the Star Wars era and how you would hear the first… the AT-ATs walking, that was the start of the second, Empire Strikes Back, in that first scene where you hear the AT-ATs, they’re walking [makes AT-AT sound effect]. And I was like, “That’s kind of dope, these giant creatures walking on land.” And then as I progressed and played around with it, you start hearing them in your head, what they would sound like on land, because in water it’s [makes sound effect] but I figure, on land they’re a bit louder and more bass-y, just this loud [makes sound effect]. Like a herd of them walking, but they’re like… six stories tall, massive and they shake the earth when they move. And they probably communicate somewhat like elephants, where they use their tapping to kind of… vibrate and communicate with each other. So I was like, I started playing with that whole concept… because I have a wild imagination, and I would have crazy dreams. And that became part of a story which I play with, which was something that I did at a gallery called RGB Lounge[, now closed]. And it was called “Black Boy Chronicles.” It was basically, all these creatures I created were coming from a concept of a traveler who left and came back, and the aliens had re-done everything on the planet, after man had wiped out everything. 

And they figured, whales, “Well, this is a starter thing, guess we’ll go start with them.” And so, what they do is like, “Let’s give these whales legs, let’s give ’em girth and stuff like that.” And so I had… the reason you’ll see a lot of my older ones were stitched together, very Mary Shelley-esque, kind of… Frankenstein kind of vibes. And a lot of them had bolts in ’em, so that became a whole narrative. And there was another character I created — as these whales evolved, there was a character called “The Afterman,” which is like this diver suit with a dripping face mask situation. It’s a weird kind of android sentient being that was left here to act as the shepherd, to kind of guide them. And there was supposed to be some sort of antagonist situation. I haven’t figured that out just yet. But that story has been going on for 20 plus years, because, you know, 48. Old man.

From left to right: “Retribution” (2022); (above) a sculpture of one of Martin’s signature whales with legs; (below) “Cadmium Queen” (2022) and “Mediation” (2020); an ink drawing of another land-whale.
Photos by Makenzie Creden / Vocalo Radio, Chicago Public Media.

Why do you love sci-fi?

I think with sci-fi, just like any story told… from elders down to youth, there’s always some level of fantasy and some level of truth. I like the element of, “Where there’s fire, there’s smoke.” And sci-fi opens up that possibility for possibility. You realize that… we’re just a speck of dust here. The vastness that sci-fi offers, the range of concepts you can play with, it’s just like art is… there’s no rules, really… How I may paint this plant, I might add eyes to it. I don’t know… I might turn those into fingers. But that’s one of the things that’s like, I feel like doing it. How I, when I paint my clouds, I make them extra drippy and weird and they’re moving. And some of the clouds take on a life of their own… 

It’s travel without a passport. It’s movement without movement.

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

Introduction written by Joshua X. Miller

Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

Photography by Makenzie Creden

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