“I just have it in me to create,” said Shei Phan. “I have always created one way or another.”
The artist is an Oklahoma native who lived throughout the entire state, as well as in California and Las Vegas. Phan began her creative journey during her childhood while witnessing her mother obtain an A+ as a single parent, since she raised her and her two siblings. Despite the challenges the family experienced, her mother always ensured the kids had food on the table and a place to sleep. Overall, Phan, her siblings, and her mother were always on the move, which always seemed like another adventure.
“I think moving around a lot as a child, attending multiple schools, living out of the car, having to stay at shelters, and just encountering so many different types of people along the way made my imagination even stronger,” said Phan. “Seeing how my mother always kept a smile on her face and made the best out of every situation sparked the creativity in all of us.”
Phan mentioned that her whole family is somewhat creative. She, however, is the only one who decided to make a career out of her creativity. She recalls a time when she was younger and she, along with her two older brothers, would have drawing contests where they drew Dragon Ball Z characters, which she’d always lose. These drawing contests pushed her to aim higher. Ultimately, Phan’s skills were discovered by an art teacher when she was in middle school. “One of our assignments was to create a self-portrait using acrylic paints and only our fingers. While the other 7th graders had fun playing in paint, I really took the assignment seriously. I painted myself for the first time, and my art teacher, Mrs. Fisher, saw my potential and started challenging me more and more.”
As a result, Fisher invited Phan to join the AP art class in high school, which she actually taught. She allowed Phan to explore all of the ideas she brought to the table, which weren’t small. As a result, Fisher would always stay after school to help her build the large canvas or develop strategies on how Phan could create these large sculptures she had in mind.
“We always accomplished the end goal …. I ended up submitting a 3D portfolio and receiving a 5 on it, which is the highest score you can receive,” she said. “Oh, happy day! Sculpture was my first love, but once I entered college, I tried to double major but they wouldn’t allow me to do so because the classes overlapped. I wanted to do art and nursing at the same time.”
When Phan discovered she couldn’t pursue the two majors, she chose to go with nursing, since it was pretty obvious she’d always have job security in the medical field. After the first semester, her creative side was itching to come out again. Therefore, Phan left East Central University to attend the University of Central Oklahoma to major in Art Education.
“I was happy to be able to get back to studio classes where I could sculpt and paint, but in my junior year, my path shifted once again. I was driving to a party all dressed up and looking cute when I heard on the radio that there was a modeling casting for a runway show for Johnathon Kayne, a local from Oklahoma that won Project Runway.”
After hearing this news, Phan turned around and attended the casting. She knew she had the audition in the bag because when she was 15, she had attended Barbizon Modeling and Acting School in Texas, where she excelled in a runway class. For Phan, modeling was a way for her to reach a higher level of artistry and to discover stories about herself that she wanted to tell.
Phan mentioned, “In modeling, your body is used in so many ways, but often your story is told. Modeling was never going to be my end career, only a stepping stone into a higher level of artistry.”
She booked the Johnathon Kayne show. In addition, Kayne invited her to be a part of his prom lookbook. Working with Kayne was Phan’s first professional modeling experience. Not long after that, she was introduced to a local photographer after being seen by an agent at a Baby Bash music video set. Her first test shoot would follow and she had no idea what she was doing. Although Phan was unaware of what needed to be done at the photoshoot, the photographer enjoyed her presence and saw real potential. As a result, he invited her back for a modeling bootcamp, which she attended every day before and after classes at school, as well as before and after work.
“He put me in every modeling scenario you could imagine. We did glamor, action shots, beauty, editorial, commercial, nudes, swimsuits, and lingerie … everything you could think of we did,” she said. “We built my portfolio and sent it out, and I got signed in New York to Fenton Moon. The agent that signed me was beyond excited to have me and had it all planned out on how she would promote me, but two weeks before I left for New York, I got a call and she told me she was leaving the agency.”
With the contract already signed, Phan had no way out. She was stuck with the agency and another agent that had no idea what to do with her. Despite this, Phan ended up in New York and continued to book her own shoots to make sure she was always shooting and building her portfolio.
After being with this agency for two years and not being pushed to her full potential, Phan obtained the opportunity to be on America’s Next Top Model. Being on the show was a bucket list item for Phan, as she used to watch it as a little girl and always said to herself that she was capable of being a contestant. After being on the show, she realized modeling wasn’t her end goal because it was just a stepping stone to exploring herself even further. She then began making the transition from the model to the artist she was all along.
“Nudes became my favorite. Being able to be in my purest form rather than in clothes, makeup, hair, and poses that covered me up and were the vision of someone else was amazing. I AM ME,” said Phan. “My nude modeling became a part of a self nude painting series called ‘FORGETMENOT,’ exposing my nude body but hiding my face, and my eyes … you can have my body, but you can’t have my soul.”
Phan also created the panda character before going on America’s Next Top Model because she knew she had to bring her art onto the show to remind everyone that she is an artist first and foremost. Her older brother Jerry, who was a tattoo artist at one point, had all these cool skeletons tattooed on him, which Phan wanted to incorporate into the panda character somehow. She created a panda skeleton and started creating characters, followed by her fans becoming the “Lil Pandas,” and in the street art world, “PANDA” as her character. As a result, PANDANATION was born.
“Making the transition from model to artist was a little rough for me because I hated being introduced as ‘the model’ instead of ‘the artist,’ but during that time I managed to be a part of multiple group shows, my first solo show, and connect with so many creatives that are now family,” she said. “I still do modeling here and there because it is still a part of me. However, my main focus will always be my art.”
Although Phan is a successful artist, model, and overall creative, one of the three roles is packaged with certain unique challenges, and that role is modeling. Within modeling, Phan explained the challenge was never being good enough for one person, but being exactly what is needed for the next.
“Being too big, being too Asian, not being Asian enough, looking too white, not looking white enough…. within the modeling world it’s all judgment, and as a young woman being judged solely based on how you look, is its own horrible challenge,” said Phan. “The challenge of looking at yourself in the mirror and knowing you are enough, knowing you are beautiful, and just knowing that it’s just business and to not take it personally is hard to explain to one’s self.”
In the creative and art spheres, Phan mentioned that the challenge is simply being vulnerable and allowing others to dive into your mind, see your pains and your heart, along with telling you if they think the work is good or not.
“I think no matter what direction in life you decide to go in, there will always be challenges where you question your whole existence, but I have that little voice in my head, my inner child, my inner genius, the homie upstairs (God), that tell me that we are on the right path and even if we get a little lost along the way or take detours, those experiences are what make you stronger and give you a little oomph to the story when you’re ready to tell it,” expressed Phan. “I had ‘artist block’ for three years – yes, I am still creating murals for other people, but not really painting for myself. I have been able to explore other creative parts of me, such as poetry, my stories, and myself. I had to dive into my traumas to discover the story I want to tell now.”
Nowadays, Phan is residing in her hometown, Oklahoma City. She left New York due to the fact that she needed to return to her roots and reset, as she felt she lost herself in the Big Apple.
“Nothing can compare to the energy New York brings. New York, however, also brought a lot of hardships for me because I worked in nightlife on the weekends, which I enjoyed maybe a little too much because there was a point where I did feel as if I was losing myself within it,” said Phan. “The drugs and alcohol started taking over, even though I was making moves as an artist and being seen … I still felt as if I wasn’t really me.”
Oklahoma City has brought out suppressed feelings Phan held deep inside her soul throughout the years. Therefore, she felt the need to dive back into the past traumas that she had pushed down in order to discover who she truly was and to experience the opportunity to spend time with herself without so many outside voices influencing her choices.
“Luckily within a year of moving back, cannabis was legalized and I was able to start painting for dispensaries … I had friends that put me on,” she said. “I miss New York every day, but I know that being back in Oklahoma is part of my journey to really getting to know myself and resolving past hurts.” Currently, Phan is working on one major project … and that project is herself. Over the years, she learned that she would always consider everyone else’s opinions, such as what they thought she should do with her life all the way to where she should go or even live. Even though she’d done so much on her own, Phan has always been influenced by others on what her next move should be.
“I just want to really strive to be the best version of myself. I have been somewhat creating for others since living in Oklahoma and creating murals – don’t get me wrong, I have fully enjoyed it and it has challenged me to explore areas I might never have before,” said Phan. “I really want to get back to me, to my story. I only want to encourage others that it’s okay to not be perfect, to go through depression, to have anxiety, to have OCD, to be a little fucked up, and to not allow fear to control your life.”
To keep up with Phan, her work, and life journey, follow her on Instagram over @shei_phan_art.