By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photography by John Michael Simpson
When Chieko Murasugi graduated with a second bachelor’s – this one in fine arts – she was too scared to be an artist. “I didn’t believe in my talent,” Chieko says about her 20-something self. So, she stayed in school and earned a doctorate in experimental psychology, focusing on visual perception – how we see what we think we see.
Now in her 60s, Chieko is one of the South’s rising stars in contemporary art, and she affirms the talent of emerging artists with a connection to the South through a collaborative project called BASEMENT. It is a grand experiment that began as a conversation with fellow 2019 graduates of the master’s in fine arts program at UNC. Chieko offered the unfinished basement in her Chapel Hill home, and they transformed it into a white-walled gallery. The first in-person showing was in November 2019, and it operates as a virtual gallery for the foreseeable future.
“We worked really hard to make that space into a gallery,” Chieko says. “I’m more of a painter than a curator, but I’ve loved having this [space] so a group of young artists who are just starting out can have the experience of curating. And it feels like it might be helping them along in their careers. It’s such a difficult field, you know, to be an artist.”
Chieko’s own work – contemporary collages – integrates materials that connect the viewer to her family history. Her surname – “Murasugi” – descends from her samurai ancestors. Born in Tokyo to her painter mother and mathematician father and raised in Toronto, Chieko lived in San Francisco for 20 years before moving to Chapel Hill in 2012 with her neuroscientist husband. They have two grown kids.
Her collages include layers of acrylic paint, paper cutouts and mixed media like swatches of cheesecloth, a material used in World War II to wrap napalm bombs dropped over Tokyo. Her parents remember fleeing their burning homes and jumping into the Sumida River in Tokyo to escape the flames. Papery strips of Japanese nori, made from seaweed, and patches of North Carolina clay give texture to her montages as do pages torn from her handwritten teenage diaries. She finds inspiration in origami colors and in the curves and lines of samurai weapons and armor.
Living in North Carolina gives her a new perspective and an opportunity to question her assumptions about what she thought she knew of the South.
“I never in a million years thought I would be living in the South,” Chieko says, reflecting on her progressive lifestyle in San Francisco. “When you live in a certain place in a certain cultural milieu, you accept those beliefs and values without question, and I think that accepting without question is the dangerous part. We see evidence of that every day. I think you have to be really taken out of the context, that bubble. When you’re in it, you don’t realize that there’s a kind of groupthink going on. … The difficulty in creating a narrative is discerning truth from fiction. Life is like that. It’s a huge confusing question mark with lots of elements that you have to somehow pull together. And in my art, I pull it all together.”