Sato, a multidisciplinary visual artist working in various mediums, was one of five artists, along with Ann Hamilton (b. 1956), Buster Simpson (b. 1942), Oscar Tuazon (b. 1975), and Stephen Vitiello (b. 1964), commissioned in 2013 and 2014 to create permanent artworks as part of Waterfront Seattle. That city effort "to reconnect Seattle to its waterfront and to re-center the city on Elliott Bay" also included plans for creating new cultural spaces, and presentation of live arts events, entertainment, and lectures ("Waterfront Seattle"). Waterfront Seattle was in turn part of the Waterfront Program, a large-scale public works project involving the removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and replacement of Seattle's deteriorating Alaskan Way Seawall, which was constructed in sections in 1916 and between 1934 and 1936.
Plans for the Union Street corridor where Sato's work was to be placed included improved pedestrian access, viewpoints, park spaces, and better integration with changing public transportation services. The city press release announcing Sato's selection described the East/West Connections project as "an effort to connect streets and facilitate pedestrian passage to new public spaces on Seattle's Central Waterfront" ("Public Artists Announced ...").
Seattle's waterfront has a lifelong personal significance for Sato, whose temporary artwork Transience of Memory was displayed there as part of the outdoor group exhibition "In Public: Seattle 1991." In a Seattle Times article from that year she described Pier 50 as the same place where, in 1954, her family disembarked from the passenger ship Hikara Maru upon arriving in America from Japan, a fact she discovered as project historian Gail Dubrow was conducting historical research for Sato's art. The family left Seattle for Pittsburgh soon after completing immigration and naturalization processing, and Sato did not settle permanently in the Pacific Northwest until 1972.
In 1950, United States Census data recorded Seattle's Asian and Pacific Islander population as 8,428, or 1.8 percent of the city's total population of 467,591. By 1960, that number had risen to 17,182, or 3.1 percent of a total population of 557,087. Sato's Transience of Memory, described in the Times as "four screens with overlying 'ghost images'" (Mathieson), conveyed her thoughts about the immigrant experience. She explained that "our eyes are jaded and screened by memory and experience. Even though this was the spot where I arrived, I hadn't remembered it" (Mathieson).
In an interview around the time of the "In Public: Seattle 1991" exhibit, Sato remarked upon a coincidence: Pier 50 was visible from the Pioneer Square studio she had moved into a decade earlier. Two decades later, during her 2013 acceptance speech for the Artist Trust Twining Humber Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, Sato informed the audience that the building that had housed her studio for 30 years was condemned in 2011, resulting in her moving her supplies and materials into temporary storage. The building was condemned as part of the project to bore a tunnel under downtown Seattle to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, part of the same overall redevelopment project for which Sato would be commissioned to create art a few years later.
Art and Transportation
In September 1991 the Port of Seattle commissioned Sato to create work for another setting where arrivals and departures took place: the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. She contracted with the Port to create "a glass sculpture reaching from the escalator to the ceiling" ("A & E Briefing"). The completed artwork, of hand-etched glass and aluminum and titled Wings of Transmission: Seatac9, is located at the end of a concourse.
Over the years Sato also had creative and leadership roles in other public settings linked to transportation. In 2002 she began a multi-year contract as lead artist and collaborator with design teams and artists for Sound Transit's Seattle Central Link Light Rail public art programs. In this role, she designed way-finding elements and created a thematically linked design plan for the Martin Luther King Jr. Way corridor. She was also a member of the MLK Urban Design Task Force. Sato's piece Air Over Under, a large canopy of enameled and silkscreened glass panels, was installed in Terminal 2 of the San Francisco International Airport in 2011; this work was commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission and the City and County of San Francisco.
Other pieces in similar locations include Traveling Stones and Other Vagabonds (2008), a series of 15 cast-bronze and stone sculptures at the Salt Lake Intermodal Transit Hub in Salt Lake City, Utah; Ghost Palms (2007) in the South Terminal International Baggage Claim of the Miami International Airport; Safety Spires (2007), a collaboration with artist Dan Corson at the Sound Transit Operations and Maintenance Facility for Link Light Rail in Seattle; The Gateway (2006) at the Port of Seattle Police Headquarters at Sea-Tac Airport; and artwork created as part of a design team for 11 stations in the Westside Light Rail system in Portland, Oregon.
Return to Art on the Waterfront
Discussing her selection to create art for the East/West Connections project, Sato said in late 2014:
"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 ... I was lucky enough to have a studio on the waterfront ... Just being there in that environment for so many years. I'm really happy about that" (Mumford interview).
A hill climb between Alaskan Way and 1st Avenue is to include a stairway and elevator. As of August 2014, Sato planned to incorporate images linked to the Pacific Northwest into the design:
"I've made a proposal that has to do with a curved wall right here, right underneath Western, and the curved wall will be glass, and the theory is that it will reflect a lot of the activity. ... [Sections of this curved glass wall will be silkscreened with images such as sword ferns] because they're a ubiquitous Northwest plant. In fact, right now, they kind of grow everywhere, and even downtown and lost pieces of dirt, sometimes you'll see a fern growing ... and then, this a seagull wing. You can see there's some similarity [to] the shape of it. The other thing I noticed ... the map of downtown with the piers and Alaskan Way and the Downtown Grid. When I was looking at this fern image, I realized that there's a kind of similarity between the angle of these fronds, the spine and the way they go off at angles, there's a similarity between the downtown grid and the fern frond" (Mumford interview).
The hill-climb elevator cabs will also have pigmented or silkscreened glass panels.
"As you go up and down stairs and as the elevators go up and down ... when you look around, you'll see, oh, there's a part of that. There's a flash of that bird wing or the fern or something that you'll be able to see ... maybe [at] a certain point you'll be able to see all the layers. Maybe not. Because, the conditions have to be just perfect, and they won't be most of the time" (Mumford interview).