You might say Fer Caggiano paints like a girl. From her home studio in Mount Pleasant, she’s creating a new exhibition highlighting the accomplishments of intelligent, feisty Lowcountry women, and she’s doing it with sparkles. Called “Like a Girl,” her project aims to inspire women and girls to ignore the put-downs, catcalls and naysayers — and to follow their dreams.
A native of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Caggiano is no stranger to catcalls. Growing up, she inhabited a world that was both warm and loving yet alarmingly sexist. Men in Brazil didn’t think twice about harassing women. “It was like they’re undressing you with the things they said,” she said.
Caggiano pursued marketing and advertising early on but didn’t love it. When an opportunity emerged to move to the United States, she eagerly took it, living in New Jersey and immersing herself in the art world of New York City. She volunteered at the Museum of Modern Art, and when her LA2 visa kept her from working or attending a university, she began classes at the Art Students League of New York with artist Philip Sherrod. There, she found her passion and the push she needed to become thick-skinned. A well-known “mean” teacher – “Not many people lasted in his class,” said Caggiano – Sherrod made her cry daily. One day, she asked him why. “He said, ‘If I don’t toughen you up, you won’t last out there,’” she recalled.
Life moved forward, and Caggiano eventually moved to Charleston, where, despite her roots in portrait painting, she discovered landscapes paid the bills. But something nagged at the back of her brain — that feminist voice, cultivated over years of harassment in Sao Paolo and working in a male-dominated industry. When two events converged in one week, Caggiano felt she had to do something.
The first was a simple catcall on the streets of Mount Pleasant. “I was in a good neighborhood,” said Caggiano. “And I was running past a construction site when someone yelled something at me in Spanish, and I thought, no, you don’t get to bring your trash here. I have a stepdaughter, and I don’t want her to have to go through what I went through.” Later that week, she learned of a case in Sao Paulo, where a man on a bus ejaculated onto the neck of a woman and was released from jail without charges.
“I want women to speak up,” she declared. “Be yourself. Wear what you want to wear without worrying you’ll get raped. I want you to follow your dreams and pursue a career you believe in.”
Finally, the “Like a Girl” project was born. Caggiano is painting between 40 and 50 oil portraits of Lowcountry women who have followed their dreams to push career boundaries and bust through glass ceilings. The collection will be shown in Charleston — details to come later as pieces fall into place — and a gala and auction are being planned for opening night.
With over 20 portraits already completed, including some with glitter and sparkly add-ons, Caggiano has found the project’s biggest blessing. “Getting to know the women,” she said. “That’s the best part.”
She can tell you about each of the women she’s already painted. There’s Tia Clark, who left the food and beverage industry and found a new life in crabbing, becoming a top-rated experience on AirBnB. Caggiano wiped away tears as she spoke about Clark. “She’s Black. She’s a lesbian. She’s been married for 15 years and has had to fight for everything, but she always says, ‘You’re going to be okay.’”
There’s Dr. Donna Roberts, a neuroscientist who studies brain activity in space; Vicky Johnson, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan; Kennya Dawn, a motivational speaker and creator of the women-centric conference, Powerfilled; and Erin Mansour, who teaches women to fight and helps them “discover [their] roar.” There are many others, too — all women who have inspired Caggiano while she paints, as she hopes the collection will inspire women and girls around the world.