The Golden Belt Art Studios in Durham house more than just traditional artists; they create an unlikely home for two scientists as well.
J’Nai Willingham, a jeweler, and Chieko Murasugi, an abstract painter, both have scientific backgrounds. Willingham is an anatomy and physiology professor at Durham Technical Community College, and Murasugi has degrees in psychology and completed a postdoctoral fellow with Stanford University’s department of neurobiology.
“I did that for a couple of years, and then I missed painting again – it’s the darndest thing,” Murasugi said. “I always felt as if I could just pick it up and it would feel natural.”
Born in Tokyo, Murasugi uses characters from the Japanese hiragana phonetic alphabet in her abstract art. She says she often mixes the two cultures and languages to create her pieces and wants viewers to feel puzzled, as if part of the painting is a mystery.
“My mother doesn’t speak English very well, and my Japanese is terrible, so we were always struggling to understand one another,” she said. “The idea of not understanding people, or just the environment, really resonates with me.”
However, recent events have inspired Murasugi to change the direction of her paintings drastically.
“When Trump was elected president, all of a sudden, the content came to me like a lightning strike,” she said. “I’ve never experienced that before in my life.”
Murasugi now paints and showcases what she calls “anti-KKK” paintings almost exclusively in her studio, after being horrified by online photographs of an alleged Ku Klux Klan victory parade in Mebane in November.
She began by including the white hoods the group is known for in her paintings, but eventually started to worry that by painting them, she was somehow validating their actions.
“While I was struggling with that one day, I turned my painting upside down, and then I thought, ‘This is my way of negating their presence,’” Murasugi said. “I’m kind of channeling my anger into something that is, for me, beautiful and soothing.”
Her newest paintings now feature upside-down triangles, which she says remind her of both the feminine figure and a protective shield. Some of this artwork employs lighter, calmer colors than her previous “anti-KKK” work.
Willingham can relate, for her art is also swayed by the emotion behind it. She creates jewelry of all styles, but says her work tends to represent her feelings.
“With more calm and soothing emotions, the jewelry that I make will end up being flowing, elegant and lightweight,” she said.
While Murasugi mostly uses painting as a separate artistic expression, Willingham’s metalwork allows her to specifically channel her scientific knowledge.
“It’s just my passion to be able to figure things out in the untraditional way,” she said. “I know the properties of metal, which is the basis of being able to work in metal, and it was a component that helped me out.”
Willingham was self-taught, and making jewelry has always been a hobby of hers. She says she began by making anklets for her friends in school out of beads from craft stores and fishing line.
But when she moved on to working with brass, bronze, copper, sterling silver and other metals, she learned that metalwork unfortunately requires expensive tools.
“I couldn’t afford them at the beginning, so I ended up making my very first set of tools, which I still use in my studio,” she said.
As for her inspiration, she looks to her surroundings.
“I believe in making jewelry that is very elegant, very sexy – but then also functional at the same time,” Willingham said. “I can look at someone’s hairstyle and think, ‘A pair of earrings that look like this would go nice with that.’”
She started by working in her garage, but when she moved to Durham, she prioritized her work by leasing a studio with Golden Belt Arts in 2008. She now participates in local art shows, such as the Durham Art Walk and the African-American Cultural Festival.
“It’s so useful to just be in a community of artists,” she said. “It’s helpful in so many ways for your creative energy.”
David Green, the leasing director with Scientific Properties, couldn’t agree more. He is in charge of leasing responsibilities for the studios, and believes in the importance of an arts community in Durham.
“Art is expression and expression is integral to communication, which in turn is integral to a healthy societal body,” Green said. “Our artists are wonderful, and their commitment to craft is really the key driver in the studio’s successes.”
Willingham has been leasing her studio for nine years, and Murasugi for four.
“When we started hearing about the vision, I was immediately ready to sign up,” Willingham said. “I knew I needed that space for my creativity.”
Through the studios, two women who showcase entirely different art forms are able to connect through their similar academic backgrounds under the same roof, just as Green intended.
“J’Nai is like the way I used to be,” Murasugi said. “Just a perpetual student, and extremely educated in science.”