Hirona Matsuda and Nina Garner haven't known each other very long, but their individual artistic paths have many parallels. Both developed their current styles out of post-college uncertainty. Both work intuitively, foraging for materials in the streets and fields and trash heaps of Charleston, and both create tiny, intricate worlds from the objects they find. Their respective works are uniquely their own, yet you could almost call Matsuda and Garner artistic soulmates. The duo teams up for a show at Avondale's Greenway Studio, inviting viewers in to explore their Small Spaces.
Matsuda contains her work in handmade box-like frames; it's a method she's been using since she graduated from the College of Charleston in 2007. She studied anthropology and studio art with a focus on sculpture, but she hit a slight road bump after graduating.
"When I graduated, I didn't have access to a foundry or all those big dangerous tools, so I started doing assembled work using some cast objects," Matsuda says. "My work is always centered around objects, I suppose, whether I made them or found them or combined the two."
Living and working downtown, Matsuda collects many of these objects on the historic streets of Charleston while walking and biking around. Trash day can be a gold mine. For example, a broken fishing pole or sewing machine can provide handfuls of gears, cogs, and chains that she'll craft into one of her mechanical vignettes. Many of her pieces look like the insides of some antiquated machine, but they're just various parts she's worked to fit together in some interesting way.
"I like the way all the different things interlock," Matsuda says. "I like when things start fitting together — a little nook here or this piece slides into this piece. Mechanical stuff tends to do that better than most things." You won't see any moving parts, but Matsuda hopes to incorporate those in future projects (though she admits a few classes may be in order).
Along with her mechanical pieces, Matsuda has been working on a series of dollhouse-like scenes — a miniature bathroom fashioned from a discarded sliver of mirror, a thin pipe, and a piece of ceramic; a bedroom made with a rusty hinge and an old clockface. "I've always really liked small things, which is probably why I gravitated toward dollhouses when I was little," she says. "They're just all little precious things. You really have to focus on them and look at them. You really have to pay attention to them. Otherwise they'll just get looked over."
Matsuda stores her unused materials on floor-to-ceiling shelves in her studio for easy access (though she admits dusting is a nightmare). She says she usually just starts piecing together parts without a specific idea in mind, which makes the creative process an intensely personal, subconscious one.
"Pretty much all of my pieces have some sort of personal meaning for me, either something I'm thinking about or going through," she says. "When you work on these things for such a long time, like with any piece of art, your mind just starts to get really into it. I've solved personal questions and problems just working through these pieces and seeing how things work together. They become more mine in a way."
Nina Garner's process is remarkably similar, foraging and working organically to create her tiny worlds, but they might as well be in a different universe. Whereas Matsuda leans toward castoff man-made objects, Garner mainly draws from nature — snakeskin, seedheads, pinecones, cicada shells. She also incorporates photographs in many of her pieces, a skill she acquired during her time at the College of Charleston.
"After college I had a hard time adjusting to the life outside of art studios and dark rooms and stuff, so I had to think of new ways to present my work," Garner says. "That's when I started collecting things, like natural things, and anything really that I liked. I just started collecting and incorporating that with my photography."
Most of Garner's pieces include a photograph that she's manipulated to look decades old. Some she'll frame using an old book cover, decorated with tiny triangles of bright fabric or a spotted moth. Her portraits are more basic, a simple oval black frame adorned with small leaves and feathers laid out in a symmetrical pattern. Garner usually only photographs friends and family. "That way it's more personal for me," she says. "It's really where the inspiration comes from." That inspiration leads her to pull from her collection stored in Ziploc bags in her studio, piecing together elements that feel right until it feels complete.
Garner often finds her materials while exploring parks and nature preserves or working as a field hand on a Johns Island farm. Well-preserved insects are one of her favorite finds. "I try not to go out and kill them myself, so it's always a great score when something looks really nice just laying there that had died naturally," she says — although the soft-spoken artist isn't above killing for her craft. "Sometimes I will do that if I'm desperate or if something has presented itself in the moment and it's too cool to give up," she says. "I've been experimenting with killing jars ... But sometimes it's too hard for me to do that." Moths and butterflies are difficult. Beetles, not so much.
Garner is currently working on taking her art to a more miniscule level, like portraits that can fit in matchboxes. "I'm interested in going even smaller because I love small works, things you can carry around, things you can fit in your pocket," she says. "It's really intimate and I'm drawn to that."
Although they operate in the same basic style with similar inspirations, it's not hard to tell Garner and Matsuda's work apart. The viewers are invited to compare and contrast the artists' creations, while the artists themselves are just excited to team up for the exhibit.
"I always thought our work as a two-person show would go really beautifully together because she uses a lot of found materials too ... and I can relate to it," Matsuda says of Garner. "I look at one of her pieces and think, 'I love this. This is the essence of who I am.' There are just a lot of commonalities."