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Poor Little Rich Girls: New Exhibit Explores American Debutante Tradition

Louisville artist Jacob Heustis was ten or twelve years old when he visited Harrodsburg’s Beaumont Inn, which had been a girls' finishing school during the 19th and early 20th century. In what used to be a dorm, he remembers something unusual about the room’s original window panes. “There were these little scrawled names scratched into the glass," Heustis recalls. "I don’t even remember what any of it said, I just remember names, numbers, dates, things like that. Later I found out they did it with their diamond rings.”The image of high society girls sequestered away in a dorm, trying to leave behind some permanent mark of themselves, stayed with him. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and Heustis has replicated their technique, carving the debutante portraits of seven American women into mirrored glass using diamond rings. His new exhibit "Debutantes" opens Friday at Swanson Contemporary (638 E. Market St.). Debutante portraits were often published in the society pages when a girl made her debut into high society, which signaled her readiness to meet an eligible groom. Rendered in scratchy lines, Heustis' interpretations of the portraits are stark and strange, but the mirrored surfaces allow the viewer an instant intimacy with the subjects. The defacement of the smooth mirror glass with hard diamond creates an interesting conversation that includes highly-prized objects, vanity, perfection and worth. Behind every portrait is an ambient, non-linear narrative of each woman's life. Heustis says his fascination with their stories led him to explore in depth the rites and rituals of high society throughout the decades. His subjects span a century, from the Gilded Age to the present. Some backstories are tragic, others have happy endings, but many of the women portrayed lived, at least at the time of their debuts, at the mercy of their social rank and families' ambitions.The debs include Consuelo Vanderbilt, Doris Duke and Little Edie Beale (even Paris Hilton!), all at the height of their eligibility and glamour. “At the core of all of this is something that always does keep me fascinated because it’s so simple and primitive, which is introducing your daughter to the men, the eligible suitors you’ve selected from your elite list, and saying she’s ready, I’ve groomed her, she’s proper, she represents us well, and any of you gentlemen can have her,” says Heustis. The exhibit opens with a public reception Friday, 6-9 p.m.