Chynna Chan’s love of the 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' has led to a stunning exhibition at Julia Deckman Studios | Photo by Michael Smallwood

“Girl with a Pearl Earring” is one of the most famous paintings in the history of art. The Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer completed the work in 1665, and it has stunned observers and inspired stories and creativity for over 350 years. Now, the famous work serves as the inspiration for PEARLS, a film and portrait series running at Julia Deckman Studio until April 5.

“It [the painting] has transcended time into this modern era,” said Chynna Chan, producer of PEARLS. “And it’s known as, like, the pinnacle of beauty. But what people don’t know is that the woman in the original painting is a completely imaginary figure. She doesn’t exist. So the idea started initially just to place diverse women in the setting and to showcase different forms of beauty.”

PEARLS takes eight women and recasts them as the focus of the Vermeer original. Chan commissioned costume designer Emma Scott, owner of Charleston Costumes, to recreate the Girl’s gown and headpiece for the women. These portraits are placed in exquisite frames and hung gallery style, making them feel like true works of art.

The project has been in the works for over a year now. Chan’s search for a venue to house PEARLS led her to reach out to Julia Deckman, who responded with enthusiasm to the proposal. The first time Chan visited the studio to discuss the project, Deckman surprised her with a pillow that features a rendition of Girl with a Pearl Earring as a Black woman. “This is fate right here,” said Chan. “The alignment was incredible.”

Hinds was immediately drawn to the idea of combining art and documentary to tell the stories of local women | Provided

Chan, who works as a writer and producer for Hearst Media Production Group, also directed a short documentary highlighting the lives and personalities of the eight subjects: Allyson Sutton, Akua Page, Camela Guevara, Hunter Park, Latonya Gamble, Paola Tristan Arruda, Sarah Maaree Williams-Scalise and Martina Abbriano. Both the portraits and film are on display at Julia Deckman Studios in an exhibit that also includes the costume used in the portraits.

“If we can view a painting of this woman that we don’t even know of and appreciate her so much, why can’t we do that with normal women who walk around us on a day to day basis?” Chan said. “We should look at them the same. And that’s kind of like the true heart of this whole PEARLS exhibition. I want to do these women justice. Because for them to share their stories with me and for them to trust in the way we’re going to represent them, it brings me stress honestly. I want to make sure they’re represented well. I want to make sure that people see and are inspired by them just like I’m inspired by them.”

Esteemed photographer Andre Hinds composed the portraits. He was approached a year ago by Chan and was immediately drawn to the idea of combining art and documentary to tell the stories of local women.

“Subject- and content-wise, I truly feel like this was the most poignant and important work of my life so far,” Hinds said. “Being able to tell the story of such a diverse group of women while also expressing the message of women as living art, art that is integral to our society, art that is imperative for our future … make this project easily one of my favorites and the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”

The eight women who were chosen represent all walks of life; artists, business owners and teachers. Chan found them through her own personal life, through suggestions from friends, and social media.

Sutton, the owner of Sightsee Coffee, was approached by Chan about being a subject last fall.

“To me, PEARLS represents the power of intersectional feminism and community connection,” Sutton said. “Each of these women are building the future of Charleston in our own distinct ways, but our work becomes even more impactful when our community is stronger. PEARLS has put me in community with some truly inspiring women, and I’m excited to continue uplifting each other well beyond this exhibit.”

More than 80 patrons and guests attended the March 18 opening night reception of PEARLS, including Williams-Scalise.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect as a result, but it’s safe to say that it has blown me away,” she said. “Friday night was a flurry of emotions  — pride in myself and the other women and creative directive, frustration at the work that still needs to be done in many facets of the stories we shared, and hope in the community we have in Charleston.”

Park, renowned frontwoman of folk/rock band She Returns From War, said she can’t sing Chan’s praises enough for organizing the project.

“Getting to know Chynna was such a gift from the universe, and seeing her hard work pay off at the opening was astounding,” she said. “She is the kind of particularly gentle that helps make the world a better place to be.”

PEARLS is open until April 5 at Julia Deckman Studio, juliadeckmanstudio.com.


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