A park does not need pathways, or benches, or sparkling fountains. It does not need the trimmed hedges of Central Park or the rolling hills of Hampstead Heath. It does not need strollers and bikes and dog walkers. It needs only a steward.
Since 2007, Charleston Parks Conservancy has been the steward of Charleston’s urban green spaces. With a mission of “rallying support and catalyzing action” to “create, expand, sustain, and reinvigorate Charleston’s urban parks,” the Parks Conservancy fosters partnerships throughout the city to bring awareness to these spaces, ensuring that as the city continues to grow, they will be preserved for future generations.
Partnering with the City Gallery, the Conservancy asked six area artists — Jack Alterman, Janie Ball, Karyn Healey, Alan Jackson, Hirona Matsuda, and Fletcher Williams III — to create works based on the city’s parks. “It was kind of random,” says Matsuda about how she became involved. “They approached Alan, and we’d been talking about doing more collaborative work. We agreed to do it without that much information — just something about the Parks Conservancy and Charleston’s parks.”
Matsuda and Jackson don’t need much to get started, though. This is their “fourth … maybe fifth … four and half?” collaboration. It makes sense, their partnering. They both have an easy way about them, and both possess a genuine curiosity about whatever subject they’re capturing. And their work is so complementary — Matsuda creates intricate 3D pieces, while Jackson focuses on the 2D world of lines and angles and exact measurements. “I really like that component,” says Matsuda, “I feel like with ours, there’s no fighting over space, because we’re working on different planes.”
“And we’re always kind of changing the way we interact,” she continues. “Hirona is always difficult to keep up with,” Jackson responds. Matsuda does not disagree, likening her pro cess to fine tuning a “mass of clutter.” While Matsuda sifts through the clutter, Jackson makes sure the two stay on track, “I think that comes from my managerial architecural position,” says Jackson (an LEED accredited professional architect with a private practice).
Jackson and Matsuda’s park journey started, as all good journeys start, with Google maps. “We went online and marked a couple that were interesting to us, based on the geometry of landscape, architecture, pathways, and their significance to Charleston, and their significance to us,” says Matsuda. “We went on a field trip and visited these places, took notes, took photographs, took samples. Alan went back and sketched the layouts.” The two focused on five parks, including Allan Park (by chance, they swear) Theodora Park, and Colonial Lake.
The two say they were surprised by the number of parks. “They’re everywhere, scattered all over,” says Matsuda, who has lived in Charleston for more than a decade. She says it wasn’t that she hadn’t noticed some of the green spaces before, they just hadn’t been on her radar. “I discovered parks, and rediscovered parks,” says Matsuda. “I used to live over by Chapel, and I hadn’t been there in a long time, it reminds me of college years, a whole other lifetime. And now I primarily use Hampton Park, because I live over there.”
Jackson and Matsuda use the architect’s straight lines and Matsuda’s found objects to create two elements as part of their installation. Matsuda says she struggled with what kind of dimensional material to use; “I gathered acorns, water samples, toyed with putting those in actual pieces. But it didn’t vibe with the architectural element.” Instead, they divided their installation into their abstracted interpretation of the parks, and the real physical element of the parks, with sketches and maps and all the collected objects.
In one piece for the exhibit, we see muted, perfectly drawn green triangles, delineating park spaces, and the pathways leading up to these spaces. Tiny trees are tucked into the corners; a miniature fountain, made of found objects sits in the center of a triangle. It looks so placid, so certain and moored.
Matsuda says that, other than Colonial Lake, this is how the two found these spaces, “They were pretty empty. But they’re kind of small. So I can see that, if you wanted to sit on a bench and have it be your own.” The tiny public spaces become private, personal, intimate, the moment a person enters. “It’s kind of an interesting public space, because only a couple people at a time utilize it,” says Matusda. “They serve as a kind of refuge, so small and personal.”
Jackson says the parks’ proximity to houses and neighborhoods also played a role in their makeup. Each park becomes the meeting place for nearby families, friends, the lawyer down the street who likes to lunch beneath an oak.
“It’s kind of a special thing, as far as a city goes,” says Matusda. “If you need to find a little space.”