The first time I saw Shenekah Telles, I was in a captive, stoned audience at a variety show in Portland, Oregon. We all held our breath in a building of many faces. The July sun set, hot, streaming through the huge windows of walls built in 1915. Originally, the building had been a library funded on a Carnegie grant. In later years, the library was repurposed. It then functioned as an office for an anti-poverty agency concerned with juvenile justice. At one point, for two short weeks, the building was even a temporary “baby-clinic.” And, later on, it became a music studio. And tonight? A performance. Music and poetry from earlier still echoed. The Hallowed Halls had huge windows, placed high, to cull light from grey skies; to let light fall on pages. Those gone books left, but their energy of learning was alive, electric. I watched Telles—a makeup and performance artist and designer—onstage, in front of a mirror, as she discussed beauty and ritual.
Now, the building belongs to a historic registry. A library, with windows. The audience— we held our breath as she transformed. It feels like a church in there, and Shenekah Telles was doing it justice. I felt like I was at a giant sleepover— and now, the makeover!
Telles applied canary-yellow eyeshadow to her lids, explaining the motive for her aesthetic. She laughed, brushing-on pigment. She painted her face. Performing a “look.” Colors and palettes.
Almost done… Then, she shaved her eyebrows off. It was intimate, sweet, and shocking. Beauty rituals enchant me, and I saw her eyes. I don’t know her sign— should have asked— but, she’s a natural… Wide windows. Some people don’t need restraint; frames, or arches. It suited her. I loved the drama. Behind-the-scenes Telles works creatively as a stylist/photographer with Neverland Images and Kate Johnson. She dreams of art collectives and has logged long hours of theatrical design and costuming at Milagro Theatre/Teatro Milagro, Theatre Vertigo, Clackamas Repertory Theatre, and Oregon Adventure Theatre. Yet, what invigorates and piqued my curiosity is the way she sees her world— the world. She’s self-described “extra”— real. It’s not just theatrics, though. In real-life, she’s tender and spirited.
Instantly lovable, extra-lovable. She’s the type of stoner that you know has brilliant ideas when she lights-up. Telles is a master of image, in a way that feels natural and earthy, even though she often creates “otherworldly” looks. Portraying Cindy-Sherman-esque multitudes, in Kryolan and Ben Nye pigments, she shares drag-life personna experiments: makeup and hair styles (and even dances!) on Instagram at @shenwen. Her account is journal-like: open and sweetly raw. Perfect and beautiful, in that “truth is beauty” mode, with extra love to vulnerability. Pretty/ugly, and all that’s between-and-beyond. Beauty and strength. The world: her apt oyster; a captive breath… While, we are the audience; awaiting the razor-edge.
And yellow eyeshadow.
Is the world ready for Shenekah Telles?
It better be!
At Rose City Variety Show, I witnessed you shave-off your eyebrows in front of a crowd. What was it like to perform such a daring beauty ritual in public? What did you learn from this experience?
I had been really nervous before doing it, and I shared that with the audience. Everyone was so with me in that moment it felt like I had thirty friends right there with me supporting me. The experience helped reinforce that I grow every time I do something I’m scared of. I grow stronger and stronger every time I do… It was such an invigorating experience!
The ritual of makeup application fulfills many roles, and Instagram is the epitome of the intersection of public and private selves. Viewing your work— your many selves— your myriad of looks— it’s startling. You have a true ability to transform. What is it like to be a femme who creates private looks which are displayed publicly like this? How has this practice defined how you see yourself?
I am someone who really adapts to my surroundings and the people around me. I used to hate how changeable I am, but I’ve found how to embrace that and make it work for me. I always thought, ‘Okay, but which one am I? Who am I?,’ and it’s taken me a long time to realize I am all of them. I am the bubblegum looks and dark necromancer looks. I am multifaceted and vast, and I don’t need to be one thing… Posting these selves or characters for people to see, though, can definitely take its toll sometimes. Like everyone else, I can get too caught-up in algorithms and likes. I start to edit myself and that’s when I try to take a break and step away. I worry too about my personal life getting misinterpreted. Like, if people make judgments based-off this fraction of my life I reveal. I go back and forth all the time between showing the truth of bad days or personal matters or whether people deserve or need to see that side of me. Will it serve me in the end?
Have you always wanted to be an artist?
As long as I can remember! I knew I wanted to go to college for theater by my freshman year of high school. I was reflecting on my past fairly recently thinking I was much more reserved and less expressive, but looking back, I’ve always been an artist. My bedrooms had shoes walking up my walls and paint cans dripping paint down them. I even had a hamburger bed!
What’s your connection to cannabis?
My connection to weed is complicated. It’s taken me a while to find the strains and balance that works for me for my day-to-day.
What strains inspire your fierce makeup looks?
What are your favorite things to do while stoned?
I love smoking and then just kinda letting my mind wander while I work. That’s usually how I end up coming up my next project. Getting stoned is pretty personal for me. I love getting high and taking a bath. And, if you want a double whammy, smoke while in a bath with some cannabis bath salts. Then get in bed and prepare to melt.
Your art has a message. What is it?
I feel like my art is about not taking yourself too seriously. I want it to be fun and just a little off. I want it to be absurd.
Your Instagram account is spectacular— it’s curated, yet genuine. How do you achieve this balance?
Wow, thank you! I think I am able to achieve that balance because it is genuinely who I am and how I live. I choose to live my life this way and I do it for me. I wear the silk nightgown to bed because it is what I’m happiest… regardless of if anyone sees me in it, or not. I have crafted my life into what I want it to be. My room is my installation, and I am my own art piece. I present to the world every day I go out. I run into trouble with this, though, because I start to question who I am and if I am crafting this life. Is it truly mine or something I just want to be? I’m gonna keep curating in the meantime, though.
If you could give advice to a young person who wanted to explore makeup artistry, what would you tell them?
There are no rules when it comes to makeup, so if you decide you want to draw some squiggles on your face then go for it! Society can be very homogenous so please bring your own unique style to it. Also, good makeup can be really expensive, especially when you’re starting from square one, so don’t worry if you don’t have the nicest stuff right away. As you build-up product, you’ll start to cycle some of the older stuff out.
How does cannabis use affect and inspire your makeup application?
Smoking before creating a look helps me turn off the rest of the noise in my head and focus. I get more in the moment and just apply the makeup without overthinking it and ruining it.
What are your favorite makeup products? What are some products you wish existed?
I love CoverFx Illuminating drops! Best highlighter I’ve ever used, and a full face requires a tiny dot. I swear by theater makeup lines like Ben Nye, Kryolan, and Mehron. They’re great for more intense looks because the makeup is meant to hold-up under hot stage lights. I really wish there was mood-changing makeup! Like, I can just imagine how cool it’d be to have my full body painted blue and then I get angry or something and I suddenly turn red. Damn, now I really want that!
Describe your dream lipstick shade?
My dream lipstick would be a black lipstick with Vantablack so I could have the blackest black on my lips!
If a nail polish was named after you, what would it be called?
If I had a nail polish named after me, it would be the cutest, hottest pink and it’d be called BigClit Shenergy.
Your style is brave and bold, and it’s completely unique. You are cutting-edge. Portland is known for being a city defined by athletic wear and lumberjack-looks. How do you find the courage to express yourself in such a defiantly different way? How did you learn to summon this power within yourself?
I struggle a lot with wanting to be seen or not in my day-to-day life. I want to wear the things I like just like everybody else. My style just happens to be less common. I have a love/hate relationship with the looks I get because my anxiety can get the best of me sometimes. So, when I go out dressed-up, it’s a rebellious act for me. It is me loving myself and saying “No, you have a right to be here and be yourself. You don’t need to dim your light for anybody.” This music group Blood Orange has a great quote in one of their songs that inspires me constantly: “People try to put us down by saying ‘She’s doing the most,’ or ‘He’s way too much.’ But, like, why would we want to do the least?”
Julia Laxer lives for the stories and writes in the afternoons from a messy desk in a rose-lit room in Portland, Oregon. She is obsessed with rose and oud perfumes, Lana Del Rey, and wants to eat all the peaches. She uses performance art and spiritual practice to explore archetype and ritual, and writes poems, essays, erotica, and memoir.