PAINT LIKE A GIRL

by ROBIN HOWARD / photography by ANSLEY PEACE

IT’S A MONDAY MORNING, and I am about to Zoom with artist Fer (pronounced “fair”) Caggiano. I am excited about this call. Caggiano is not only talented, but she also makes art from a solid center of joy and purposefully uses her work to make the world a better place. At the bitter end of this brutal year, I am looking forward to talking to her because I know whatever she’s been up to since our last chat, it’s going to be good.

Ayelet Gilady, oil and cubic zirconia on canvas, 40″ x 30″

A smiling Caggiano pops up on my screen, head wrapped in a vibrant silk scarf from her wearable art collection. She’s in her Mount Pleasant studio, surrounded by dozens of large-format paintings for her upcoming show, Like A Girl: Dare To Dream.

I ask how she’s been getting on during the pandemic. It turns out, like many of us, she’s recently experienced what writers call “a catalyst that moves the story forward.” The catalyst in question was this: In 2019, Caggiano detoured from painting landscapes and painted a nude. This contemporary, tasteful work created a tempest in a teacup for a few people who believe nudes have no place in the Charleston art scene. The implication was that women have no place painting nudes in the Charleston art scene. Yes, that really happened.

Born in Brazil, where a deeply patriarchal culture heavily influences women’s societal roles, Caggiano had long ago had-it-up-to-here with sexism. Ever a peaceful warrior, she drew on her years of living in a Buddhist temple and working at a meditation school to create a work that would serve as a personal, diplomatic response to the criticism.

The response took the form of I Don’t Give A F*ck, a magnificent self-portrait of Caggiano holding up a finger—the middle one—to her sweetly pursed lips. The work truly is among her best. It was selected for the juried show at the City Gallery during Spoleto, and prints fly out of her Etsy shop. The artist had hit a vein, which made her realize she wanted to paint more strong women. Lots more. Like A Girl: Dare to Dream was born.

Dr. Donna Roberts, oil on canvas, 40″ x 30″

“I want to use my skills to make something good happen,” Caggiano says. “And I am very driven to fight for equality for women.” To create the show, Caggiano enlisted publicist Robin Scarella and writer Diane Fletcher to help her find subjects to paint, plan the exhibit and gala, and write and produce a book that tells the story of each of her female subjects. Proceeds from the paintings will go to organizations that support women. There are opportunities to sponsor a painting or help offset the cost of supplies.

So far, the artist has painted more than 30 women she sees as strong role models. There’s Ann Graham, fire chief for Isle of Palms; Jessica Koening, who skippers a formidable all-women sailing team; Mulern Jean, a Mount Pleasant police officer who  is headed to the Olympics in Tokyo; Carol Linville, founder of Pet Helpers; and Tia Clark, the owner of Casual Crabbing, recognized as one of Airbnb’s Best in the World experiences.

Chief Ann Graham, oil on canvas, 40″ x 30″

As Caggiano shows me the paintings and tells me each subject’s story, I am nearly brought to tears. There are stacks and stacks of these large paintings, each representing a woman persevering and excelling in male-driven industries. I ask her if she sees the irony in her project, that in the middle of what she’s described as a “very intense time,” she is devoting so much energy to uplifting other women. Her eyes light up. “But that’s what women do,” she says.

Tessa Spenser, oil and glitter on canvas, 40″ x 30″

Caggiano’s website includes a robust online shop where you can buy original art, prints and wearable art featuring her work. Stay tuned to her Facebook page for sponsorship opportunities and final details about the upcoming show. *

Robin Howard is a full-time freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.