Looking back at her career to date in a 2014 interview, Sato recalled:
"I was always doing arty things ... in elementary school I was in the art club, and we used to do various projects at lunchtime ... I always took whatever art classes there were at school. I guess I never really thought I'd be an artist ... One thing led to another, and all of a sudden, I was at the University of Michigan, and I thought, I guess I'll go to the art school. I started out just getting a general arts degree, and then I thought, I'd rather make it rather than study it. One thing. Then, another. Then, another. It happens like that" (Mumford interview).
Norie Sato was born in Japan and moved with her family to the United States when she was 4. They lived for a few years in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and then settled in Michigan. After graduating from the University of Michigan and spending a year studying art in Japan, Sato moved to Seattle in 1972 to pursue graduate studies.
Sato received her Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from the University of Washington, where she studied video art with artist Bill Ritchie; they would later share studio space along with several other artists at Triangle Studios in Pioneer Square. Sato quickly became involved in Seattle's art world, winning first prize in the Professional Prints category at the 1973 Pacific Northwest Arts and Crafts Fair, and establishing a lithography studio at Seattle Pacific College (now Seattle Pacific University) and teaching at the Bellevue Museum School, the Foundation School of Contemporary Art, and elsewhere. By 1976 she was a member of the Seattle Arts Commission.
Her prints drew international recognition while she was still in her twenties, winning prizes in the Fifth British Print Biennale (for Edge Glass II) in 1976 and the Third International Trienniale for Colored Prints in Switzerland (for Signal Interference: Horizontal Roll), also 1976. In October of that year she presented a solo show at Kiku Gallery, then located at 1826 Broadway Avenue in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.
"Initially, when I started working in printmaking -- that is where my degrees are, in printmaking -- it was kind of an ideal medium for working in layers, because you really build up the image in layers ... I started working with the combination of landscape and geometry at that point, a little bit. Primarily, about the horizontal line and about edges. So, initially, when I was still in graduate school, that's one of the things that I had worked with. Then, it just sort of became much bigger than the specific quest of one idea, and it's really expanded into a lot of work" (Mumford interview).
In a 1976 article, Seattle Times art critic Deloris Tarzan traced Sato's interest in working with visual and conceptual presentations of edges, anticipating some of her later glass work:
"The earliest prints in the Kiku show are from her 1973 Coulee series. At that time she worked with the concept of canyons, and the space they enclosed. That idea was abstracted to dealing with the space between any two objects, and soon she was involved with the concept of horizons -- the simple earth/sky dividing line. Horizons became edges, and those which interested her most were edges of glass. When a sheet of glass was laid down, often the edge was all that was visible. ... The idea has been translated into her prints in several ways, most notably in a print derived from a photo of the green-tinged edge of a stack of glass sheets" ("Sato Links ...").
In 2014 Sato recalled she had been "looking at that kind of fine line between things and paying attention to the edges and not so much the center. That has really continued throughout my work, despite the fact that my work has taken a lot of different forms and a lot of different ways of looking at the world" (Mumford interview).
Norie Sato's work was frequently shown at the Linda Farris Gallery from about 1977 until the gallery closed in 2005. That long and fruitful relationship included opportunities for public engagement through panel discussions such as "Performance/Video/Earthworks/Photography," on December 7, 1976, at which Farris gathered Sato and other artists at the Seattle Public Library on 4th Avenue.
Sato saw a strong link between video art and printmaking. She studied the way video raster lines form pictures and became intrigued with abstracting the images back to lines. Pale striations, derived from the raster lines, are visible in many of her images.
"Another video-printmaking link is the aspect of improvisation. Sato improvises constantly ... she concentrates less on platemaking than on the printing process itself ... 'I like to change each [print] as I'm working; to make infinite variations on a plate, so that no two prints are exactly alike'" ("Sato Links ...").
Sato's use of glass became one of the best known elements of her art. Glass reveals, but when combined with tints and silkscreens, it can also hide:
"I think one of the things I've been always interested in is making people look more closely at things, and to make more visible things that are either hidden or not paid attention to, normally ... A lot of my work has had to do with layering, and putting something down, covering it up, making it barely perceptible, making it visible sometimes but not other times" (Mumford interview).
Earlier in her career Sato combined glass with video art in her 1979 piece Image Interference, a sculpture in which flashing television images were visible "through a pile of glass shards centered on a mirror-tiled surface" (Tsutakawa).For a time Sato was the Exhibition Program Coordinator for Seattle's and/or gallery at 1525 10th Avenue, which was founded by Anne Focke (b. 1945) in 1974 and closed in 1984. Sato showed her video art and prints at the gallery; she left the coordinator position in 1981 to devote more time to her art. In March 1983, Sato's solo show Peripheral Vision at the Linda Farris Gallery included drawings, video, and mixed-media works, some of which included mirrors and glass.
Sato continued to create video art, sometimes in collaboration with other artists. She received National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in 1979 and 1981; Western States Regional Media Arts Fellowships in 1982, 1987, and 1989; a Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship in Video for 1989-1990; and an Artist Trust Media Arts Fellowship in 1993. Sato's video art was widely shown in film festivals and traveling exhibitions, including "New York, Seattle, Los Angeles" (1980), which was organized by the Museum of Modern Art and toured Europe, Japan, and the United States. Her video installations include The Birth of Momotaro (1990) at Seattle's Linda Farris Gallery and Pause, a 2002 six-channel collaboration with Heather Dew Oaksen at Suyama Space.
Of her video works, Sato said in 2014:
"They weren't storytelling pieces. They told stories about things, or about the technology of video. I've been saying, basically, that video is now dead, because video, for me, was a lot about the analog image, and about how analog video was formed and how it created the image on the screen, and a lot about the technology of the phosphor that moved across the raster lines. Now, that is not at all how the image is made. I think that it's still valid, if the digital image and the LED screen and all that kind of stuff has a different attitude aspect to it. I don't think people pay attention to the difference between what video was in its analog day, and what it is now. It's still a moving image, but a lot of what my work was about was the technology of the analog video and the beauty of it, how the image was formed in our brain and not on the screen, and about how it really was just a single point of light that was moving by so fast, how our brains couldn't process the information fast enough to be able to see it, so it looked like a full image to us, always, even though it never was" (Mumford interview).
Seattle's waterfront became a recurring theme in Sato's life and work. Her family disembarked at Pier 50 on their arrival in the United States in 1954, and years later she would have a view of Pier 50 from her Pioneer Square studio. In 1991 Sato's work Transience of Memory was included in a temporary outdoor exhibition at the waterfront. In 2014, Sato described it as a "coincidence that I found amazing because, when I came from Japan to the U.S., Seattle was really not the destination. Pittsburgh was actually the destination. But, in those days, planes were not that available. When the idea of this piece came up, I was not really thinking so much about making it autobiographical. I was just thinking about the history of the waterfront and being there, all the time, my studio being there. I wondered what I could find out" (Mumford interview).The 1991 public art project had hired historian Gail Dubrow to provide research for the various artists involved. Dubrow researched the Hikara Maru, the ship the Sato family traveled on, and found the family's names on the ship's manifest. Describing that research and its impact on her 1991 artwork, Sato said:
"It's kind of like the Ellis Island experience, except it was, of course, here in Seattle. ... Then, the piece really took a different turn, and I made it about coming over and it came from the personal, and then it went to the universal. What has that water said, and what is that transition between cultures, and how does that work? When you step from one country to another country and when you go from water to land, and all those things came to be important and interesting to me, because I'd always been interested in ... the whole idea of edges" (Mumford interview).
Public Art and Design for Urban Spaces
Sato's art and design work in public environments went beyond spaces designated for arts and culture. Many of her public art projects involved some degree of urban planning, urban design, and collaboration with architects. Sato said of that work:
"Though I bring artistic concerns into the design of public artwork, I also bring in information and ideas specifically related to the site and its function: historical, sociological and physical connections to the community" ("King County Pump Stations").
Influence of Influents (1999), located at Bothell's North Creek Pump Station, is one example of such collaboration with a project design team. The pump station rerouted wastewater from Bothell, Woodinville, and a Snohomish County pipeline to King County facilities with greater capacity. Sato's artwork, a copper drain, captured rainwater on the roof of the brick building and directed it along sculpted metal wall panels to rocky pool, and from there to the landscape.
Sato was the system artist for the 1998-2009 Sound Transit Link Light Rail project.
"I wasn't just working on a project. I was really working system-wide. The 'system artist' term was coined by Carol Valenta to describe what I did different from what a project artist might do. Instead of working just on [a] specific site ..., I was really working on the entire alignment for Link in Seattle, the Seattle portion. Planning and inserting myself in the urban planning and the light rail planning of all kinds, station design, just like anything that I can think of. It was actually a really exciting project for me, because I got to look into all kinds of things that I couldn't normally have thought of. For instance, I had a hand in designing the tactile warning path, which low-vision people use their canes along" (Mumford interview).
Named The Braid, this warning path consists of textured tiles inset into the tile paving in the rail stations. Knots in the braid are set in vehicle boarding areas, while station entrances are marked by braided sculptures.
"That was a really great project, because it was very long-lasting and I got to see so much of how things work, in a way that artists don't always get a chance to see. We really got into the agency, we got into the way they do things, into public meetings, into interacting with other agencies ... Sound Transit really took it very seriously, and said we are going to have art there, and it's going to be visible as art, and even if we have to cut the budget a little bit for the artworks, we're not going to cut it out. It's become part of the experience that we want to give our riders. I think that's very foresightful of Sound Transit" (Mumford interview).
Pride, Sato's gathering of stone, brick, and bronze lion sculptures made in the visual styles of different cultures may be seen at the Columbia City Station's Southeast Plaza on South Edmunds Street. Master brick carver Mara Smith collaborated with Sato on one carved brick lion. Sato also collaborated with artist Dan Corson on Reeds and Bangles and Safety Spires, adding colors and sculptural elements to Overhead Contact System (OCS) poles located throughout the system and between rail stations.
Sato designed art or worked as a lead artist for design teams on many other public art projects. Among these are the San Diego International Airport Reflection Room; San Francisco International Airport's Terminal 2; the Arabian Library and McDowell Mountain Ranch Aquatic Center, both in Scottsdale, Arizona; Miami International Airport; the Seattle Justice Center; Iowa State University's Hach Chemistry Building; Salt Lake City Light Rail stations; the new Port of Portland Headquarters in Oregon; and the University of Wisconsin/Madison's new Biochemistry Building. In late 2014, Sato was working on public art projects that included the Fort Worth Chisholm Trail parkway in Texas and Seattle's Union Street East-West Connections project. Discussing the latter project, part of the Waterfront Seattle program creating new art and cultural spaces on the waterfront in connection with the planned replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a bored tunnel and rebuilding of the Alaskan Way Seawall, Sato said:
"I am now commissioned to work on a project on the waterfront at Union Street, and even though I wasn't at Union Street, it's still the waterfront. So, there is, for me, the interest of being part of having been on the waterfront for all those years and watching the light change and the weather change out of my studio window" (Mumford interview).
Collections and Recognition
In 1991 Sato donated her project, exhibition, and teaching/workshop files; correspondence; and other printed material representing her work since 1974 to the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution. During those years Sato had exhibited work at the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and many other institutions. In addition to private collections, Sato's work was acquired by several Washington institutions, including the Tacoma Art Museum (Phosphor Ice Fog, 1986) and the University of Washington Libraries (Living Knowledge, 2006). Air travelers using escalators inside Seattle-Tacoma International Airport may observe Sato's Wings of Transmission: Seatac9 (1992).
In addition to serving on the Seattle Arts Commission, Sato served as a commissioner of the Seattle Design Council. She was a co-founder of the Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA) in 1980. At the national level, she served on the Public Art Network Council. Sato is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, both for her solo work and for collaborations with artists including Bill Will and Dan Corson. A partial listing includes the Betty Bowen Award (1983); the George Tsutakawa Award for Advancement in Public Art (1997); the Twining Humber Award for Lifetime Achievement, presented by Artist Trust (2013); and the 2014 Governor's Arts and Heritage Individual Artist Award, presented by the Washington State Arts Commission and Governor Jay Inslee.