The Making of a Public Artist: Celebrating AWN Alum Harper Matsuyama

Along the streets of Prince George’s County, drivers and passers-by are greeted by beautifully decorated traffic signal boxes. As part of a public art project by The Hyattsville Community Development Corporation to enhance the visual landscape of the community, 11 metal traffic signal cabinets were transformed with designs representative of community, identity, and character. With the help of local arts and county professionals and the public’s vote, five designs were selected from four Maryland artists, including Hyattsville’s very own Harper Matsuyama.

Harper Matsuyama's Traffic Box. Located at Adelphi Rd & Toledo Rd.

“When I first started on the design, I immediately knew I wanted to make the most obnoxiously colorful design I could,” Harper said. “The design is basically a conglomeration of different foods, objects, animals, etc. that represent our community, and Maryland as a whole.”

Harper Matsuyama

For those who know Harper, the opportunity to install public art in her community can only be described as an inevitable step in her journey as an illustrator. From an Art Works Now alum to current student at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, BC., she has always had a special relationship with art growing up.

“I took up drawing as a fun activity when I was inspired by doodles I found in my dad’s notebook,” Harper said. “I remember drawing all throughout elementary school. My classmates encouraged me, so I continued, and in high school, I realized it was something more than a hobby.”

Art is a form of empowerment for Harper. From refining her style to improving her technique, the process of putting her hands and mind at work is not only therapeutic, but also addicting. Over the years, her work has become cleaner, focusing more on meaning than aesthetics. Having grown up watching shows like Dragon Ball Z and Pokemon, her drawings are influenced by pop art, anime, and manga styles. Her use of vibrant colors is thanks to her grandfather who taught her to use watercolors when she was young.

"A Place at the Table: Race" by Harper Matsuyama

"A Place at the Table: Race" by Harper Matsuyama

Barbara Johnson, Founder and Executive Director of Art Works Now has had the pleasure of watching Harper blossom creatively. In 2012, Harper participated in Art Works’ teen camp -  taught by Barbara - with the theme “A Place at the Table.” Campers age 13 to 18 explored the idea of “power” or agency in relation to one’s place at a metaphoric table of community and created works based on artist Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party which addresses feminism and the disappearance of important women in history. In Chicago’s Dinner Party, these iconic women are the invited guests, in an effort to re-establish their roles  in Western Civilization. Witnessing the collaboration between such a diverse and talented group sparked something in Harper. “The experience opened my eyes to the impact and meaning art can hold, and how creating it can bring people together.”

From entering local art competitions to speaking out in favor of lowering the voting age to 16, Harper’s involvement in the community has developed organically over time. Her parent’s encouragement is the driving force behind her confidence to be as active as she is. Having her art displayed in the place she’s grown up in makes Harper feel closer to the people and places she loves.

But the traffic boxes are just the beginning for her.

“After seeing my art printed onto a traffic box, I think it would be amazing to be able to display my work in other public places,” Harper gleams. “My main goal is to have the honor of designing more public artworks.”

Jazmine Johnson