Building a Creative Ecosystem with Theo Martins
Theo Martins is an actor, musician, designer, artist, and entrepreneur. But titles aside, Theo is committed to being the best at whatever he is doing.
We sat down with him and talked about it all it would seem. From forming relationships to staying grounded, Theo walks us through his artistic journey—years of adding layers and peeling them back, allowing him to hone in on what really matters. He describes his practices as “A big house, with lots of rooms in it”, and he’s just getting started.
MW: So man. Where are you? Where are you calling from?
TM: Currently my apartment. I’m in Los Angeles. My office is a couple miles away, so I usually walk to and from every day.
MW: Yeah, I’ve been there once I think. You did the Typing collaboration launch a few months ago, right?
TM: Yeah, absolutely. That feels like an eternity ago. But those are good guys. Christion is someone who I’ve talked with often, and is always opening up relationships. Which is beautiful. And the work he’s doing with Jean Dawson is on another level. And Ben is someone who I’ve known for years now. I knew him through the internet, like many of us. Honestly, I randomly flew to Chicago just to hang out with him for the weekend. I was just like: “What are you up to?” And we just kicked it the entire time. On the last day, he asked what else I was planning on doing. “Oh no, I flew in for this. I mean, I got some food I wanted to try, but I really wanted to come here and lock it in” is what I explained to him. To me, he’s such a valuable mind, and I wanted to make sure that I just connected with him on a human level.
MW: Yeah, it’s really amazing to hear that. There’s a real value placed on that kind of mindset, I think. In my experience, people we often look up to, especially in the creative sphere, are also just really great human beings. If you show that interest, or make the effort to come to them, they’re much more responsive and easier to get a hold of than we might initially think.
TM: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s genuine too. There’s a good energy around people like that, so it’s all about depositing more of that in your space.
MW: How long have you been in LA?
TM: Coming up on nine years. I’m merging from Providence, Rhode Island. So I consider myself a small city kid. Music initially brought here. And the warmer weather. Without really knowing it, I’ve spent that time here really stepping into my own artistry, and defining and redefining what sort of artist I am. Starting out in acting and music and performance, as a kid, I’ve spent most of my time growing and stripping away all the excess layers that I find I don’t really need. And that leaves me in a place where I’m able to focus on what’s important to me. I’m still performing, and making music, and doing all the things that I’ve been doing all my life, but I’m doing it within a particular construct. Everything is woven from a point of view that comes from my world.
MW: Do you think that growth and development would have happened in a similar way if you weren’t in LA?
TM: I feel like environment is so necessary. Mental, social, and physical environment. Those things really dictate how something grows. You think about nature and plant life. A flower in LA could grow how it needs to, because it’s got the right soil, right amount of sunlight for what it’s trying to do. If that flower is somewhere muggy, a little too shady, it’s going to feel that. You know? I tried New York, but I knew for where I was in my career that I wasn’t ready to be defined by my environment. I wanted to arrive at that on my own. So I was fine delaying things and taking an extra year or two, bumping myself down the road, because I was doing it for my own reasons.
MW: Your physical location is never just a location. It’s not as simple as that. Los Angeles, as a cultural hub, is as much a living and breathing space, as the work we end up making. So it comes as no surprise when you start to notice these physical locations having their own unique style. It’s easy to get sucked up into that.
TM: Absolutely. You end up making a popular song, or publishing something that people really love. It’s hard not to become derivative of your own work. You end up playing to the fans. I think about great athletes, like Michael Jordan for example. Despite everything that was going on around him, in the league, the management. He was still playing his game. He never took a shot and looked to the audience. Yeah he’ll look towards the fans after they win, or after they lose, but he was never playing for the applause. I’m reminded time and time again: If you care about the things you’re doing, you can’t focus on what’s unimportant. You have to show up to do the thing you came to do.
MW: So you mentioned that this whole thing started with acting and music for you. And somewhere down the line, it turns into fashion and it turns into design. And now it seems somewhat of a combination of all the above. Do you see these mediums overlapping and interacting with each other? Or are they pretty individual?
TM: Initially I would be very rigid when someone would mention that they came across my work from something other than music. I wanted everyone to know and understand me the same way. I tried to put everyone in a framework. But I look at it now and I understand that it’s all really coming from the same place. Yes, because they’re all projects stemming from one author, but it’s more than that. It’s an ecosystem that feeds one another. Cereal and Such is a Cereal Company. This quirky side of my artistry really shines through and allows me to make objects that are fun and ephemeral. Then there’s Posture. Which I view as my true artist practice. It’s not something I need everyone to wear or know about. But it’s just as important. It involves my meditative practices. Before I started all of this, I would’ve been very confused by it all. I wouldn’t have any understanding of what went where, or why. But now I see that they’re all different rooms in a big house.
MW: Where does design come into this for you? Does making a bowl for Cereal and Such feel like designing a shirt for Posture, or coming up with your next album artwork?
TM: Yes and no. When I think about design, it all boils down to communication. I look at the timeline of Picasso’s work, and find it to be a good example. It started off very classical, and really tasteful. Clean artwork. And over time, as he continued to experiment and try new things, it got messier and messier. But the communication was the same the entire time. Posture, Cereal and Such, they both have their unique styles. Posture is really off the hip. I try not to get in the way of it. Cereal and Such is playful, and very specific within its realm. But, at the end of the day, they’re both communicating similar messages, since they’re both coming from me. And that’s where I see design as the common throughline in all these projects.
MW: Does one of your projects mean more to you than the other? Or are they all balanced? I know it’s unfair to ask you to pick your favorite child.
TM: It’s really all the same to me. At this point in time, it’s a real privilege as an artist, and as a black artist, to be able to say that I don’t do any work that I don’t want to do. All the fat has been trimmed off. I’ve lessened the bandwidth of what projects I’m jumping on, just because I find that what I’m already doing is so much fun.
MW: What a great position to be in though. Almost no one gets to experience that. Plenty of people have multiple practices, but there’s a clear favorite. At some point most people are forced to establish some sort of hierarchy.
TM: You’re absolutely right. And I was able to be like that because I started off already knowing what I wanted. I knew I wanted my practices to be fluid and be able to have seasons and change and pivot over time. Leaving room for flexibility is crucial. And through that flexibility I was able to be really honest and truthful with the work I was making. I was able to say: “I don’t really want to see everyone in a Posture hoodie. It feels weird. I want everyone to wear Cereal. That’s what it’s for. I want everyone to have this.”
MW: I find that really interesting. From a brand perspective, is the audience you’re going for with Posture, the same audience you’re targeting for Cereal and Such? Or are they different people?
TM: Like I mentioned a bit ago, I really want Cereal and Such to be for everyone. In my big house with all its rooms, I find Cereal to be the living room. Everyone is welcome, it’s incredibly comfortable, and there’s a little something for everyone there. But there are people who look and understand Cereal and Such in a deeper sense. They’re asking questions. “What’s really going on here?” “Is this really just a cereal bar? Why are all these people here?” I think people who try to look at it, really question and try to understand what is going on within this brand, then 100% they’d be into Posture. It’s almost like a secret door.
MW: I love that. Do you think forcing your audience through these secret doors, making them try to discover and understand what is going on between these seemingly unconnected brands, was that intentional? Or did it just happen over time?
TM: It was something that was natural. It happened over time and it’s a really hard thing to accept, if we’re being honest. While it’s nice to make people discover things on their own, there’s a lot of uncertainty in that. It doesn’t always pay off. But, at the end of the day, it’s who I am. I don’t want to be for everyone. I want to attract the audience that I’m doing the work for. Campaigning, making a lot of noise, trying to get as many eyes on it as possible. It seems like a lot of fluff. And unimportant, really. If one person comes and thinks what I’m doing is cool, then they’ll probably leave and tell two more people. And I’m finally at a point where that’s enough for me.
MW: And that’s such a huge hurdle too. Because we’re talking about companies here. Companies that require money to be made. So investing money and having the ability to trust yourself and trust the process that if you make something you like, other people are going to gravitate towards that. It seems incredibly challenging to be able to be alright with only one or two people potentially seeing your work.
TM: Absolutely. It’s a huge risk. And there’s this component of really caring for and loving something you made. You have to be able to let it go. It feels like you’re feeding it to the wolves, but you have to be open with where it might take you. But most importantly, you have to enjoy the process. Sourcing stuff, meddling over the details. That’s where the real fun is. Once I put it out, the feeling is gone. And it’s on to the next thing. I used to hear artists say that, and I couldn’t believe them. But it’s true. The enjoyment is in the making. The coloring book I just made, for example. Getting friends together to do this, I’m more excited about what they get to be a part of, and how we get to do this thing together, rather than the book itself.
MW: I want to take a minute and switch things up. Can you talk to me a little bit about Posture, and what kind of story you’re telling through that? You gave an update a few weeks ago, talking about doing really small batches, doing designs that you want to do, and being alright with not always thinking about the customer.
TM: Yeah, good observation. I appreciate that. A lot of that spawned from discomfort, actually. People don’t really talk about how uncomfortable it can be to make something. Or the weight of it really. Outside of the financial cost of making something like Posture, there’s the expectations that I have set up for it, most of the time before it’s even off the ground. The fear of time is another big one. Worrying about how something ages. Those things can be helpful motivators, for sure, and it’s good to be asking those questions, but oftentimes it doesn’t end there. They chip away at you, and can be unhealthy distractions. And they don’t allow you to make the work you want to make. I liked the natural direction of where Posture was heading. Every time I tried to get a sales rep, or get it in stores, it felt wrong. And I found the answers I was looking for, not by giving into those pressures and discomforts, but actually by working through them. Understanding where they were coming from, and why. Understanding that I didn’t have to move in the exact same direction as my peers were. Ultimately, I was getting sales, but I was mainly working with my friends. The Apartment, in Tokyo, started carrying some of our stuff. It showed up in another store in Tokyo, after that. And then another. All of a sudden, my brand was only sold in Tokyo, which was sick to me. It wasn’t intentional, but it was exactly where I imagined it landing: Nothing was on a hanger, they’re in weird, quirky shops for quirky individuals. It really hit me hard. I’m this Nigerian-American kid from Rhode Island and I have folks in Japan wearing the clothes I made. They dress like me. They probably have the same desires and interests as I do. The spirit of this product has resonated with them on an entirely different continent. And I can’t wait to continue to see where it takes me.
MW: Can we take a second to talk about how cool it is to see your stuff so well-received over there? Japan is so cool. North Face Purple Label, Beams.. They’re some of the best that are doing it right now. It’s all over there.
TM: Absolutely. I never could’ve predicted it. I made the Rhode Island crewneck ironically. A mascot for the smallest state in our country. To see people pulling off fire outfits with it on another continent. There’s just layers to it. It’s such a joy. That flower we were talking about earlier is blooming in really interesting ways.
MW: Let’s talk about this coloring book you mentioned a little bit ago. One of the artists was Colson, who’s an Instagram homie who I just love. Just one of those guys who you can visibly see is spreading love and positivity. I’m sure the other artists are the same way. How has it been releasing objects through the boxes of cereal?
TM: What a guy. I think with the release of this coloring book, it became very clear: These are the kind of objects that come with a bowl, here’s what comes in a box, you can buy a shirt if you’re a fan of this company. It all felt very smooth this time around. But yeah, working with Colson, Brittney, James, Chinwe. It was just so much fun.
MW: Is collaboration something you’re always trying to work into these projects, or did it just happen like that this time around?
TM: For Cereal and Such, It’s collaborative for sure. I want the spirit of it to be shared. Before it was ever a box, it was a physical location where people could meet and hang out. It was hidden in plain sight. If you knew it was there, you knew to go behind the store and go through the back door. And that was inspired from being a kid and going to Bodega in Boston. Even being able to know where to go in felt like you were a part of something special, you know? Which to me is the best shit. You’re able to filter out curiosity. You’ve established interest. But back to your point of collaboration, I’m always trying to build those bridges. We’re all working on really serious projects, so being able to hit up an artist to do a cereal box together feels like the best thing ever.
MW: Big Star Radio..
MW: I listened to it blindly the other day and was just blown away. It had Earl, Wiki, Navy Blue, Maxo.. Dude come on. That’s the ticket for me. Those dudes are everything. I had seen a lot of your projects before, but seeing that curation really made me feel a connection to you.
TM: Man, shoutout to Hyla, shoutout to Jimmy Marble. Hyla kickstarted this radio program: East Side Radio. Jimmy has a show called Island Time. I do Big Star Radio. For me, I just love the radio so much. I love that curation. DJing or playlists are no different than wearing a T-shirt. It’s the best way of saying: Here’s what I’m into. Here’s what I’m trying to say. And being able to put the homies on. I love Maxo, I love Navy Blue, I think they’re truly incredible. The music is amazing and being able to share that is enriching.
MW: It’s all about that house you’re building. Each project has its own room, but there’s gotta be music playing somewhere to set the mood, right?.
MW: But that can be huge for people, you know? If someone really looks up to you and what you’re doing, Big Star Radio is a real opportunity for people to learn and understand your taste on a more digestible level. Like, who’s your favorite artist’s favorite artist?
TM: Absolutely. And that’s how I found my early interests. Digging around. Trying to better understand the brands that I’m obsessed with. Who are they looking up to? And why? That’s how you continuously level up.
MW: I’m sure you get this all the time, but are you afraid of getting burnt out? Or are you just getting started?
TM: I’m just getting started, for sure. I think there’s a level that we all hit where we understand that we need to be in overdrive in order to make the things we want to make happen. Especially now, in a transitional economy, one that has been thrown into a socially, racially, politically chaotic environment, you really have to ask more from yourself. As an artist, and as a Black artist, even having a studio space feels very political. It’s hard to feel burnt out because everything I’m doing feels really important to me. And I understand that in the middle of this chaos, it can come across as: “Oh this guy’s going to make cereal”, you know what I mean? But for me it’s important. At a time when everyone is backing out of seemingly everything, I feel like this is the perfect opportunity for me to continue to lean in. And things won’t always be this way, this state of overdrive will surely have a comedown. But I want to run it up while it’s here, you know?
MW: And I think people very clearly see that. Your success as a Black artist, as a Black business-owner, is in the fact that you simply outwork your competition. It transcends race, transcends politics, I think.
TM: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s a truth that some people aren’t ready to admit. That they’re out-worked. I’m literally only focused on being very good at what I’m doing. That’s all that matters to me. Regardless of the circumstance, whether something performs well or not. It doesn’t matter to me.
MW: I’m curious then, if you feel like you’re just getting started. Have you arrived at your ideal visual style? How things look and feel? Or are you still trying to figure it all out?
TM: I think I finally reached a sense of clarity in the last six months. Cereal and Such launched in October, and it felt like the cement had finally dried. But I’ve been able to become very clear on the trajectory of what Posture is. I know and understand what it’s going to look like, and where it’s heading. The same goes for Cereal. Up until three months ago, I was pretty convinced I was going to sell it to Kellogg’s and call it a day. Wrap it up. But honestly, my attention has pivoted to: Let’s focus on getting a company truck. Let’s build this business from the ground up and really try and secure these small wins. And really trying to be honest with myself and realistic. Not trying to turn Cereal and Such into something that it isn’t. The groundwork has already been laid, so why not run with it?
MW: How long did it take to get to that point?
TM: Without really knowing it, I’d say nine years. But realistically it was five years of die-hard commitment to get to the point of having a firm groundwork and understanding just what exactly this thing is.
MW: I think it’s just hugely important for anyone reading this to understand the timeline in play here. Because unsuspectingly, it’d be easy to say: “Cereal and Such came out in October and they’re already popping off”. When in reality, you’re looking at five, maybe 10 years of really committing yourself to a cause. Like a bankrupt-yourself kind of commitment.
TM: Yeah, 100%. And you hear so many fears about this idea of bankrupting yourself. But really you just have to be willing to go all the way on yourself. Going beyond your ego, and what you think you deserve, and really just focusing on rolling up your sleeves and being the best at what you can do. At the end of the day that’s all that really matters.