Jackie Liu ’25 creates therapeutic portraits for herself and her ever-expanding TikTok following

Oct. 12, 2021, 10:25 p.m.

If you’re at all prone to hours-long TikTok scrolling sessions, prolific artist Jackie Liu ’25 has probably appeared on your “For You” page. Also known as @jackieliuart, Liu has mesmerized her 1.1 million TikTok followers with skillful acrylic paintings and thoughtful voiceovers. 

For Liu, who is originally from Weston, Mass., art has always been a fact of life. “My earliest memory of distinctly liking art was when I was in pre-K when I was four. I was the only person in the class who knew how to draw stars, so people would just ask me to draw stars on their paper,” she said. “I don’t really remember my life existing without art in it.”

She boasts a website where she has sold 55 original pieces and 2,771 prints. Her work spans a broad range of subjects and forms, including lighthearted renditions of memes, magnetic portraits of notable public figures and also more serious paintings relating personal struggles or taking a stance on current events.

Liu recalls art serving as an emotional outlet throughout her elementary and middle school years. Back then, colored pencils were her preferred medium, because they granted her relative control. Even “the mechanical aspects of just connecting pen to paper and then making something out of nothing was cathartic,” she said.

Liu’s love for art persisted as she entered high school, even when academics took center stage, and it was then that Liu ventured into painting as a medium. When she was first required to paint for a school project her freshman year, Liu’s initial reaction was hatred. Acrylic paint offered less precision than her usual pencils — a fact that set off alarm bells for the self-proclaimed “control freak.” Nevertheless, Liu said she stuck with it, “and for some reason, I just fell in love eventually.”

In 2019, Liu completed around 15 paintings. Then in 2020, when the pandemic kept her locked in at home, it was like a creative wellspring burst open — she finished a total of 74. Sometimes, in a manic flow of inspiration, she found herself tirelessly churning out a new painting in just a few days.

She honed her skills while working summers at Artists for Humanity, a Boston-based nonprofit that aims to empower teens in urban communities by teaching them artistic and entrepreneurial skills. Liu’s job required intensive work in a studio each day, usually five hours a day for minimum wage. Occasionally, her pieces would be leased out to galleries or purchased by patrons.

Liu also found herself increasingly drawn to Gen Z’s latest fixation: a social media platform called TikTok, though she initially tried to resist its allure. 

“I was one of those people who lowkey made fun of people who had TikTok,” Liu said. “I was like, okay, at least I’m not on TikTok yet. That means I still have my sanity. But then my sanity left, and so I was like, you know what? Time to throw in the towel. Make a TikTok.”

Her subsequent rise in popularity felt shocking at first, partly due to TikTok’s algorithm. Often subject to spontaneous and unannounced changes, it’s a lot less reliable than the algorithms that other platforms like Instagram or YouTube use. Liu described it as an addictive gamble that incentivizes creation, but said that its unpredictable nature can be also counterproductive. If countless hours of hard work go into creating a piece and capturing it in video and narration, only for engagement to be underwhelming, “it’s hard not to associate it with a judgment on your worth, or the worth of the content you produce,” Liu said.

Beyond this, however, Liu was struck by the way her content can take on greater meaning for her audience. Depending on the viewer, a single work of art is subject to infinitely many possible interpretations. She’s been interested to see how art can create a vessel for others to process their own emotions.

Imaan Ibrahim ’25 says that she found meaning in the piece “Sanctuary.” The image of the woman “peacefully immersed in a koi pond despite being surrounded by darkness representing a multitude of emotions” resonates with Ibrahim, reminding her “to make space for serenity amidst the constant bustle at Stanford.”

Liu’s piece “Mother” held similar power for Aya Aziz ’25 when it first crossed her “For You” page earlier this year. In fact, the background song choice has stuck with her since then: “Agape” by Nicholas Britell “is now the song I listen to when I’m stressed and want to go to sleep,” she said. Aziz also professed admiration for Liu’s vulnerability. Art allows us to “show people things that you normally wouldn’t,” she said.

“I am so incredibly beyond grateful for the fact that people all over the world have connected with my art and taken ownership of it,” Liu reflected. “In that sense people construct their own meanings and express their own ingenuity.”

Liu has found the most artistic satisfaction in her most vulnerable pieces. These often navigate topics such as complex family relationships and Chinese-American experiences with culture and othering. Still, making lighthearted content provides a much-needed foil, as “the more personal and creative and expressive pieces are sometimes very emotionally taxing.”

Lately, Liu’s “fun” pieces have largely been celebrity portraits. Works with such mass appeal are also beneficial because art currently serves as her only source of income. Creating commercially can be taxing, however, and she said producing with a single-minded focus on an audience has led to some burnout in the past. Liu is learning to strike a balance between the extremes of creating for herself and catering entirely to audience interests.

Regarding her creative process, Liu said her pieces typically begin as a concept she wants to explore. From there, she brainstorms ways to visualize the idea and drafts some rough thumbnails. Liu developed her style as a self-taught artist through extensive experimentation — she has drawn inspiration from seeing the range of human expression possible in other artists’ work.

New to her overall procedure is the task of recording a voiceover. These range in length from a minute to a minute and thirty seconds, and mainly accompany her personal reflection pieces. She usually composes a rough draft to pin down her swirling thoughts, though sometimes she feels loose enough to jump right into recording. This spontaneity marks a stark departure from her previous approach to writing.

“This has probably been good for me, in the sense that now I hate writing less,” she said about formulating voiceovers. Before TikTok, she “would self sabotage and be unable to just get a sentence out on the page, because I would try and craft it in my mind so it was perfect before I even put it out. And that would just stop me from being able to produce anything.” The more she experiments with finding her voice as a writer, the less forced the words feel, and at times she even finds herself enjoying the process.

Looking to the four years ahead, Liu is considering a double major in art and political science, sociology or anthropology. She chose to attend Stanford over art school for the greater academic breadth it allows her. Though excited to pursue her creative passions, she wanted to avoid prematurely committing to a career in the arts.

“I still want to give myself the most possible avenues, especially because at this stage of my life, I haven’t really had the opportunity to explore that many domains, academically and otherwise,” Liu said.

Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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