Fine art among the shelves

Mar. 27, 2014 @ 10:47 AM

“Chieko Murasugi:  The Circle,”
Nordstrom at The Streets at Southpoint, through April 2.

Department stores and original art are not a usual pairing, but the local Nordstrom sees it differently. Beginning just six months ago, the store created a new space and invited its visual merchandising team to come up with an original use for it. The idea, put forward by Ashley Reynolds, was to create a gallery and invite local artists to show and sell their work in the space.
It caught fire. Everyone loved it, from her teammates, to the store manager to corporate headquarters, and so have the artists, Kelsey Melville and Chieko Murasugi, who were the first two to exhibit. The space is situated on the second floor where customer service used to be; it is a prime location near the restrooms and the elevator.
Murasugi works out of her studio at Golden Belt and uses an array of media in her paintings. When the invitation came to submit an application and slides, she jumped at the chance. Here her show covers images that begin with the circle, including cutting it into wedges and, as she writes, rediscovering the color wheel. Her supports also cover a variety of substances from traditional paper and canvas to discarded plastic and resin she collects at places such as The Scrap Exchange.
In her artist’s statement she talks about the circle as a universal symbol of nature and humanity, the center of the Japanese flag, and a component of the random dot fields used in research she did in visual science. It has become the base on which she makes explorations in paint and mixed media. As she explained to me, the Nordstrom series began with 12 antique Canton plates her mother-in-law gave her. She started by tracing each plate and then making variations on them. 
Using the plates was a way to show her love for this woman and also set some boundaries to begin working. The circle is still with her and she feels its possibilities are limitless.  Even the most cursory examination of her work reveals how deliberation learned as a scientist is part of her modus operandi. While a series can hover near sameness at times, that is not the case here. There are always the adjustments of media, watercolor, silkscreen, oil and then what might amount to surgery, cutting the image open, moving bits around, thinning or thickening others. In the end the parts become a new whole. 
For instance, in “Red Wash” the circle floats in a sea of red wash.  Here and there the red bleeds into the circle which is covered with squiggles and daubs of various paint hues.  In “Blue Gray Circle” faint dotted circles surround the main disc while found papers settle themselves like dancing figures just below and one finds its place in its upper quadrant.  Sometimes we look down into the circle as in the central pod of a flower, sometimes there seems to be a whirling motor kicking up colorful debris and sometimes the circle sends off bursts of color. Indeed there seems no end or beginning with the circle.
Reynolds, the manager of this project, and I sat in the gallery and she talked about her idea and its primary goal. Reaching out to the area’s artists is just one more way for Nordstrom to be a good corporate neighbor. She said the idea is new for the modern-day Nordstrom and hopefully other stores in other cities will follow suit. She has a fashion merchandising degree from Meredith and before she came to Nordstrom ran a small fashion boutique in Durham where “handmade and local” was her philosophy; making contact with the Triangle artists is just part of something she has always believed in. 
The plan is quite simple; send out a notice to the various college art departments and artists’ studios, invite locals to submit slides and a biography and a small group within the store will determine who is chosen. Reynolds said they had 10 applicants on the first round, another five the next round and sometime this summer there will be another call.  She said they will not schedule too far out and, as long as the idea seems to be working, Nordstrom is committed.
Murasugi was born in Tokyo, grew up and was educated in Canada and then came to Stanford University in 1990 with a post doc in experimental psychology. Painting was always in her blood, however; her mother was a painter. She said, “When I get stuck with a problem, I always seem to return to my art.” Her background includes the sciences, writing and now she is doing art full-time. When her husband was offered the chair of Duke’s Department of Neurobiology they moved to the Triangle. She said it was a culture shock to come to an area where there were so few Asian-Americans and so her art became her way to find her own place.
Historically, department stores and original art have had a partnership. Lindsey Pearce, Nordstrom’s current general manager, said early on many of the Nordstrom stores had a fine arts department, and there is also the famous story about the Russian jeweler for the Czars, Faberge. The story involves the financier Armand Hammer, several different American department stores, the collector Lillian Thomas Pratt and the Virginia Museum of Art. In the midst of the Great Depression the financially strapped Soviets asked Hammer to sell some of Russia’s greatest art treasures, including many Faberge baubles, in the states and he hit on the idea of marketing them through American department stores. Pratt bought more than 100 Faberge jeweled objects, some on a lay-away plan, and in 1947 gave the collection to Virginia’s museum.
The art in the Nordstrom gallery will not be jeweled Faberge, but it will be original.  

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.