Charleston-based assemblage artist Hirona Matsuda uses found materials to create compositions which delicately balance light and shadows | Photo by Paul Cheney

Charleston-based assemblage artist Hirona Matsuda’s exhibition at the City Gallery features artworks made in collaboration with her sister, fellow artist Riki Matsuda. Her sister is based out of Cork, Ireland, but the two artists have conceptualized this project for nearly a decade.

The sisters bring themes to the exhibition rooted in their observations from growing up together in Charlotte, N.C. We Were Made from Shadows focuses mainly on how Hirona Matsuda’s childhood informs her interpretation of her surroundings. She’s worked since 2007 in miniature assemblage with recurring motifs of steps, ladders and spaces within spaces.

“A ladder will take you to a different plane,” she said of the longtime symbol in her work. “As a kid, in the top bunk of the bunk bed was where you could see everything out below you and be the king of the room. Or maybe it’s climbing trees. It’s a different perspective on the world, where there’s more solitude, one more peace. You can kind of be away from all the action that happens on the ground.”

The family business was the central focus of daily life in the sisters’ childhood home. Their father, an acupuncturist from Japan, and mother, a health food expert from Ireland, started an alternative medicine and natural food community space called the Natural Living Center. 

Every Wednesday, their mother would cook a meal for the community, and their home would become a public space in a sense. 

“I remember a lot of disposable containers in my kitchen as a kid,” Hirona Matsuda said. “It was super normal to have all these aluminum containers with cardboard tops. That was just part of how you existed — our fridge was one of those glass front full fridges, like a store, where everything’s on display.”

A double life

Matsuda experienced, in a sense, a double life. The private and public versions of her family life created a sort of mixed signaling, she said. A driving theme of the show is the dichotomy between public and private — seen and unseen. 

“To go into other people’s houses and not see some of these things, it [was] like, this is how you exist? It’s different from how we exist. It was also kind of complicated because I think, in living two lives, you don’t really know what’s normal and what’s not normal.”

Matsuda’s sense of belonging was also impacted by the fact that her parents were foreigners in America — her father from Japan and her mother from Ireland.

“I remember being a kid, and I lost a tooth. My mom didn’t understand why I was upset the next day, because my tooth was still there, and she had to figure out what the tooth fairy was. Having parents from these different places, they said they didn’t understand each other’s cultures, and then together, they didn’t understand American society. So as kids, we were taking cues from all these different places.”

Matsuda became fascinated with how people interact with place, so she studied anthropology at the College of Charleston, which is also when she started working in miniature assemblage. There are assemblages in the current show that date back to Matsuda’s 2007 senior thesis, plus works as recent as last month — notably, a video performance created in collaboration with her sister.

A way for Matsuda to work through those confusing paradoxes of her upbringing was to recreate personal moments and memories in her art. 

In the two largest works in the exhibition, maple leaves hanging in a hallway are blown around by a fan, and a similar large-scale composition on the first level uses Venetian blinds. The maple leaves point to a moment where Matsuda was caught in a gust of wind, where maple leaves danced around her, her mother and sister while visiting their ill father. 

Other artworks in the exhibition explore themes of nostalgia, memory, personal history and family ties — including an installation where pieces from the Chinese board game “Go” are interspersed with stones Matsuda brought home from Ireland, a poetic description of her parents. 

Matsuda said she’s enjoyed sharing her perspective with others and connecting through the personal themes in the work. Her current exhibit will close at 5 p.m. Sept. 10, but viewers can meet the artist at the gallery before it ends. If you miss this show, catch Matsuda’s work at Hed Hi Studio in March 2024.

“I think a lot of the themes in this hit home for a lot of people in a very personal way,” Matsuda said. “There are so many things that we go through in our lives that seem so personal and private and singular. But there’s no such thing as a singular experience. We’re all connected. So it’s been really nice to share that with everybody, and just recognize each other.”

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