An over-sized ceramic foot with red nail polish, covered in shiny mosquito bites sat elevated in the middle of the white-walled gallery.
The piece — titled "Sweet Blood" — begins a discussion of what the new art exhibit at Charleston's Redux Contemporary Art Center represents. Its message? A Southern woman's woes begin with open-toed shoes in the summertime.
But that's not the full message of the exhibit, and definitely not the full extent of Southern women's woes.
"Me and My Girlfriend" features cross-media artwork created by two Charlotte-based makers and friends, NHin Nie and Grace Stott, who have residencies at a local art gallery and studio. Their art explores female identity and relationships, from companionship to liberation, all under a whimsical umbrella.
The two are being featured until Sept. 13 in Redux's annual collaborative exhibit.
"I love seeing how creative practices overlap, but not necessarily intentionally," says Redux executive director Cara Leepson. "And I love how they contemporize more traditional media."
Nie and Stott met in 2016 at an art show that Stott curated in Charlotte.
"It was the first self-proclaimed feminist art show in Charlotte," Nie recalls. "It was something different, something weird. I wanted to support that."
The two artists became acquaintances in the scene and then, later, fast friends when they both got residencies and studio spaces at the Goodyear Arts gallery. As they worked in the same warehouse, they also realized that a lot of their art had similar themes.
"I think it's because we're both exploring the same thing over and over again in our work," Stott says. "Our identity as women."
That translated into Stott's colorful ceramics of women's figures, flying butterflies and prowling cats, along with Nie's bright paintings depicting girl friends in a variety of settings, from a slumber party to the beach.
When they first booked the collaborative show in Charleston, Nie says she was going to display a collection of sad, emotional puppets. But when she and Stott came up with the title, "Me and My Girlfriend," her approach changed from conveying her inner heartaches to showcasing her inner strength.
She crafted a row of "self-defense nails" — acrylic nails shaped into weapons that could be used as self-defense in a scary situation. It stems from the combination of her past job as a nail technician and her personal experiences of being placed into uncomfortable and unsafe situations where she, could feel her own vulnerability.
"We both have the same pepper spray," Stott adds.
For Stott, cats are a particularly poignant symbol of female power because of their duality. At the Redux exhibit, there is a corner full of wall-mounted, brightly colored ceramic cats with glowing eyes. It's titled "Mean Cats (you can't sit with us)."
"Cats are amazing, magical things," she says. "They can be so chill and want to nap and then be total psychopaths and just want to kill things."
A lot of Stott and Nie's artwork is self-described as "subversively cute," but both artists express the importance of unashamedly presenting one's identity, regardless of the stereotypes that might come with, say, the color pink, flowers or cats and butterflies.
"I won't be judged by my cat art," Stott says. "I feel like it's important to assert our femininity in a very unapologetic way."
Stott says she created a lot of her artwork while watching "Veronica Mars" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" on TV. Nie says a lot of her pieces were inspired from her being tuned in to what's happening in the world and then internalizing it.
"I'm an energy absorber," Nie says. "If the whole world is mad, I'm going to make something that shows that."
Ceramic depictions of Tapo Chico mineral water and a bag of Utz Girls chips are featured on one wall of Redux as part of an installation piece.
Stott says the food and beverage are a small ode to her and Nie's friendship. The two women artists have both related to each others' career journeys in a world that Stott says is increasingly accepting but still unequal.
"We're underestimated a lot," Stott says. "I've felt like I wasn't taken seriously, like I was judged for my mannerisms and way of talking. But we shouldn't have to be different. We don't have to take a back seat. This is who we are."