On the evening of May 30, when peaceful protesters gathering in the honor of George Floyd were replaced by rioters shattering the windows of several King Street businesses, photographer Paul Chelmis was at his girlfriend Jing Wen's house in Summerville.
He and Wen watched on Facebook Live as riot gear-clad police officers stomped down the familiar downtown thoroughfare, as rocks and bricks were hurled into storefronts, as flames and flares and tear gas filled the stirring night air.
Chelmis wanted more than anything to be in the middle of the chaos with his camera, capturing a moment in history. Instead, he was left on the outskirts, trying to make sense of it.
"My camera is my greatest weapon of making a difference in the world, and it was killing me I couldn't be there to document that moment," Chelmis said.
While some were quick to label the rioting as an inexplicable atrocious act, Chelmis saw it through a different lens at a distance.
"I kind of saw it as a natural reaction," he said. "Like yeah, of course this is the result of our inattention. Instead of focusing on how terrible these people are who are ‘rioting,’ we should focus on what we should do to prevent it from happening in the future."
Chelmis and Wen ruminated more that night. Through conversation, they formed the idea to spin what was perceived as a violent, negative act into something good that could potentially illuminate the deeper issues behind the scenes. Wen came up with the concept: "Make something beautiful out of the rubble."
So, the next morning, before most people were even awake, the couple drove downtown to see the aftermath with a mission already in mind: collect the shards of shattered glass lining the street. They weren't just helping to clean up, like others who gathered at sunrise that morning; they were preparing for a project.
At the time, Chelmis and Wen were already in the beginning phases of starting a handcrafted jewelry nonprofit together. Chelmis, who had taken classes in jewelry making, was itching to get away from creating art at his computer screen and instead use his hands. Wen, a longtime high-end jewelry consumer who had noticed some flaws in her own purchases, had gone to graduate school in business. They both wanted to use their talents to give back to causes that were important to them.
Little did they know the King Street riots would inspire their first jewelry collection.
"That morning, we were thinking on a much smaller scale than we should’ve been," Chelmis recalled. "I'm kicking myself for not gathering 10 times as much glass."
He took some snapshots of broken windows and of the community gathering to pick up the wreckage as he filled up a backpack with glass pieces to turn into pendants, bangles, rings and earrings back in his studio.
Chelmis and Wen's jewelry nonprofit already had a name at that point, Shan Shui, inspired by Wen's Chinese roots and view of the world as a flowing tide. The ancient Chinese term, represented in old script in the nonprofit's logo, means "Mountain Water."
"We're inspired by the social landscape, the ebb and flow of things, the way things work together," Wen shared.
Wen, who is a Chinese citizen with permanent residency in the United States, had not experienced anything like the George Floyd protests before.
"When I saw the news about the police station on fire in Minneapolis, my first reaction was, 'Why burn down a building? That doesn’t benefit anyone,'" Wen recounted. "But then I realized it wasn't about the building. It was about not being heard for all these years."
Chelmis and Wen wanted to make sure they were doing something that would amplify Black voices and foster positive change. So, they turned to their friend and a powerful voice in the music scene, Kanika Moore of Doom Flamingo, for assurance and advice.
"When Paul came to me with the idea, he really wanted to make sure that it would be perceived the right way," Moore said. "He was cautious about it and the way it would be viewed. He wanted it to be a positive influence."
Moore was in full support of the project, especially after an important detail made its way into the brainstorming phase. Each piece of jewelry was given a name, particularly the name of an innocent Black person killed at the hands of the police.
There's The Tamir (Rice), The Ezell (Ford), The Tanisha (Pughsley), The Trayvon (Martin), The Gabriella (Nevarez), The Breonna (Taylor), The Eric (Garner) and The Elijah (McClain).
The jewelry line is called "Wear Their Names," a play off the phrase "Say Their Names" that has become a slogan of the Black Lives Matter movement. The profits from all sales will be donated to From Privilege to Progress, a national movement working to desegregate the conversation about race on social media.
After fleshing out their concept, Wen and Chelmis went to work designing eight bold, minimal styles to create around the riot glass. Then, in his workshop, Chelmis sifted through the shards. He treated and smoothed the glass, sometimes torching it down, sometimes reinforcing it with epoxy resin. He surrounded the fragile pieces with a carefully crafted silver framework.
The jewelry is then packaged in eco-friendly, non-plastic materials, attached to a hand-signed note made from recycled cotton shreds and shipped to the buyer.
Wen's posts on social media of the project in its early stages drew the attention of Erin Glaze Nathanson, director of contemporary initiatives and public engagement at The Gibbes Museum of Art.
At first, Nathanson was drawn to the "really beautifully done" craftsmanship and the nonbinary, gender-neutral feel to the line. Then, she learned of the mission behind the pieces and story behind the materials.
"At The Gibbes, we strive to serve as a space for people to come in and see our entire history — everything that encompasses what people should know about Charleston," Nathanson said. "Introducing this line into our store is another way we can do that while showing support to the community."
Nathanson emphasized an opportunity for the duo to showcase their line in the Gibbes' rotating Visiting Artist Program series down the road.
The Shan Shui "Wear Their Names" line will be available for purchase in The Gibbes' shop toward the end of next week, and Chelmis and Wen will be on The Gibbes' Instagram Live at 9:15 a.m. Thursday to talk more about it.
From early online sales, all 40 pairs of earrings ("The Tamir") in the line are already sold out. There will be no more, as the glass shards remaining are limited and will be used for other pieces in the collection.
If Chelmis and Wen sell every piece they could possibly make from the glass collected, they will raise $20,000 for From Privilege to Progress.