Sheena Liam makes delicate needlepoint versions of all her favorite pics. After years of working as a model, the LA-based artist decided to turn her work into something more creative. Thinking back to the tedious embroidery work her mother used to teach her, Liam began stitching black-and-white versions of herself. Eating noodles, cutting her hair, in a windstorm—Sheena crafts meticulous portraits that examine the beauty and mundanity of being a girl. Though she’s not trying to make some sort of bold feminist statement. For Sheena, art is just a way to explore herself.
BULLETT caught up with the artist to talk about Instagram, embroidery and if she uses real hair. Read our interview and view two exclusive pieces, above.
How did you get into needlepoint?
When I was younger, my mom made me do it. I’d always done flowers and cross-stitching with her, but I thought it was boring and not really fun, so I never really finished anything. But then, growing up, you realize you can do whatever you want. And for the last year, I’ve been experimenting with this idea of hair hanging off an embroidery hoop, and just building all of my work off it.
Where’d you come up the idea?
I’ve always just drawn girls—that’s what I always enjoyed doing as a kid.
Are you using real hair?
Of course not. I played with the idea of using actual hair to do it, and maybe I will eventually. But I don’t have enough hair right now, obviously.
What do you want people to take away from your work?
It’s really just a way for me to put something out there, rather than something others can take away from. I don’t have an agenda or anything I’m pushing, and I never even expected people to be interested in my work—it just always been for me.
So you were surprised when people started liking it?
Completely. I’ve always had my work on my normal Instagram, but then I decided, instead of making people scroll through a bunch of pages to see what I’ve been working on, I should start a dedicated account—that was in May. And then I woke up to 5,000 followers—I was really shocked. Now I’m at 85k and it’s insane.
That’s why Instagram has been so big for artists.
My boyfriend is an artist, and all of his friends are artists, and I see how Instagram can really let you move past the traditional way of being one. Usually you need a gallery, and a book of customers, or collectors that have always bought your work and supported you—that takes years to establish. But now, all you have to do is post your work online—Instagram is such a game changer.
You work with female figures in your pieces. Do you consider your art feminist?
A lot of people have asked me that, but I don’t really think so—I’ve never had an agenda behind my work. I’m never trying to push anything onto anyone. For me, the pieces are just pretty, and really a way of reclaiming myself, because I was a model for so long and felt like I wasn’t allowed to create. I was never part of the creative process—I was just always everyone else’s canvas but never the artist. And with this, I’m seeing how powerful it is, claiming myself—having some sort of expression instead of just being a canvas.
How do you come up with your designs?
I work from photographs of myself, mostly—it’s easy for me if I have a point of reference rather than just drawing from nothing. But I usually have an idea of what I want, then I get people to photograph me doing those things, like eating noodles, or lying down. Plus, I have a lot of references because I’ve been modeling for so long. All these photographs of me in all these different poses—I use them as a basis for my drawings, and then I transfer them onto the canvas and start stitching. The hair is always whatever I want it to be, though. It doesn’t have to be realistic—it can be as surreal as possible.
I saw you did one really big, five foot piece. Is that something you want to do more in the future?
Not really, actually—I don’t see myself working on that scale again any time soon. It was a fun challenge, but I feel like it doesn’t have the same beauty as it does in its usual size—it’s just huge and loud. I like my work to be small and quiet, and more about how intricate and sharp the details are, rather than having something so huge just for the sake of it.
What do you get out of embroidery that you don’t get out of other medium?
I find that embroidery is so much more fun, and it makes it easier to express myself. With charcoal, you can put it out there and it’s ephemeral—it doesn’t last and there’s a freedom that comes with it. You can create and create and it doesn’t have to be precious, because it goes away. But with embroidery it’s just so scary—you do one thing wrong and it ruins the whole thing. It’s really difficult. And I don’t have a 9-to-5 job, I don’t really have a boss, I don’t really have any structure to my life—if my agency says I have to be in Paris for fashion week, I have to go. So I don’t have much control or discipline in my life. This is a way of creating that for myself.
Is that why you don’t sell them?
They’re just so personal—I work a lot on them, and I can remember every bit of energy that goes into making each piece. But a lot of people—they just don’t get it. They want me to make t-shirts or jackets, but I’m not into making wearable anything. That’s the thing about embroidery—people don’t take it seriously as an art form. They think it’s just deco or something you put on your jeans to look cute for a day. But these pieces are my ‘fine art,’ and even more than that—my form of self-expression.