Cover Sheena Liam working on her collaboration with Coach (Photo: Josh Kok)

The winner of Asia's Next Top Model Cycle 2 has turned her favourite pastime into a burgeoning career as an artist

The first time I chanced upon Sheena Liam’s work was in the earlier half of 2017, when the artist had just started posting on Instagram under the handle, @times.new.romance. And while I wasn’t able to put a face to the name then, this mystery embroiderer’s works had definitely caught my eye; featuring a series of tall, willowy figures stitched in meticulous, deep green, their hair either purposefully left alone or styled to spill organically from the canvas—almost as if they have a life of their own, so to speak.

A quick trawl through Google later, and I find myself even more intrigued when it seemed as though the embroidered women had in fact come alive, manifested in the form of their very own creator, who at the time was a model that had taken the world by storm in 2014 after winning the second cycle of Asia’s Next Top Model.

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In that very same year, Liam found herself in a flurry of activity; from being signed to an international modelling agency, to debuting in London Fashion Week and even landing her first few magazine spreads as well as covers in the following months, the model was a well-seasoned traveller by the end of it all. However, during the downtimes in between shows, Liam’s suitcase apparently became her very own portable studio, and she would embroider wherever she went, committing personal moments to memory via needle-and-thread instead of a camera.

“To be honest, I didn’t enjoy working out of a suitcase, even if I had done it over the past two years since I started in 2014,” says Liam. “It was just a means to an end really, more of a way to express myself  during my idle moments. Those earlier works of mine had travelled the world alongside myself, and like me, they’ve grown in their own way as well.”

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Over time, as her works grew in number, so did her audience. In October 2018, Liam landed her first solo exhibition in Paris, having caught the eye of one Patrice Forest, the director of Item gallery as well as the fine art printing press Idem Paris, a few years back when she’d only just begun embroidering her third piece. The first time he asked if she’d do a show with her work, Liam declined, saying that she didn’t have any more to do a proper exhibit.

“They’re personal, and it was something I found a lot of peace doing,” she says. “I thought putting goals, monetary value and inviting public opinion would be very damaging to something I enjoyed so much.

“But after the show, it taught me to let go of my own reservations. Now, I continue to make the things I want because I like the process, but I hold back a lot more on social media these days because I realise that not everything has to be for public consumption.”

On the subject of today’s social media culture, particularly in the lens of a creative, while Liam concedes that it has democratised the people’s access to art as the conventional gallery model has evolved alongside technological advancements, she stresses that the numbers of one’s following do not, and should not, be indicative of their work.

“Some of the greatest artists I know, whether you judge their successes based on their talent, financials or prestige, actually have little to no social media presence,” states Liam. “Sure, it’s nice to hear that people like your art, but I think that a lot of people these days give too much weight on what the masses ‘like’. Your artwork should ultimately be for you and your enjoyment—everyone should derive pleasure out of creating art, really. It shouldn’t feel like a chore, no matter how challenging it gets.”

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Today, the artist intends to take one day at a time, and hasn’t stopped herself from creating despite future uncertainties. During her artist’s residency at Haus Kuching, Liam finished her largest and most ambitious installation yet: a towering, mixed media sculpture made of wood, paint as well as yarn entitled In Search of Lost Time. Recently, she also collaborated with American fashion label Coach, where she created five original artworks on their leather handbags for their Coach Forever Spring 2021 collection.

When asked about her observations on the pandemic’s impact towards the creative scene, the artist simply states, “Artists can survive anything; they alway have and always will, even in a society that does not respect their contributions to the world. Art encompasses everything that we do—it endures.”

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