Historic South Downtown Oral Histories: Norie Sato Recalls Working in Her Pioneer Square Studio

  • Posted 7/21/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11088
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Norie Sato (b. 1949) is a Seattle artist who worked in a Pioneer Square studio for several decades beginning in the 1970s. The proximity to and views of Elliott Bay played a role in her creative process, as she described in a May 2015 interview with Dominic Black. She was interviewed as part of a project HistoryLink did in partnership with Historic South Downtown to document the historical connections between the Chinatown-International District and Pioneer Square neighborhoods and the central waterfront.

Pier 50

Even though I've lived here since 1972, it was -- Seattle was actually my first step onto U.S. soil when I came over from Japan. And the ship that I came on was the Hikawa Maru … . And the Hikawa Maru was a kind of a regular transport between Seattle and Yokohama in Japan, which was the port in Japan. So that’s how my family and I came to the US.

We didn’t actually live in Seattle after that -- we moved. My father was a physicist and he had a position at the Westinghouse labs in Pittsburgh, so we traveled from Seattle to Pittsburgh, but we did land at Pier 50.

What was really amazing to find out was, in 1989 I was commissioned to do a temporary piece along the waterfront, and I thought, "Well it might be interesting to see if I could find some history about the ship that I came on" and blah blah blah. And in fact I discovered that actually my studio, which was facing the waterfront at the time, was actually facing Pier 50, and that where I had stepped first onto U.S. soil was really right across the street. So that was a really amazing kind of coincidental story.

You know, it’s one of those things that doesn’t really mean anything, and certainly when I picked my studio I was not thinking about that at all, it was just not even a thought in my brain. But you know really thinking about it now, thinking about that connection, it became much more meaningful for me at that point.

Near the Waterfront

You know I realized then that the viaduct is the only reason I was able to have that space, because it’s noisy, dirty, it was just really horrible. But there were good parts about it.

One was that the sun would always set twice -- it would set above the upper deck then it would come back out as it got lower you know, and then I would see the real sunset underneath the viaduct -- it was really very beautiful.

But when I first moved in the Alaska state ferries were still at Pier 48. That was really fantastic, and I remember taking the ferry not to Alaska, but back from Alaska in 1981, and landing right there across from the studio and using the studio as a landing base and that kind of thing.

But the other thing was that at Pier 50 there was kind of a commercial dock that included the Polynesian restaurant, and Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe was there also. And it was kind of that -- when the waterfront wasn’t hip at all, it was still sort of a working waterfront, that there were companies there that still did canning and stuff like that.

And I still have memories because we had … the Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe has this calliope that they had in front of their shop that you could put money in, and it would play music. And it used to just drive us crazy, like all day long the music would be on and we were like trying to figure out "What can we do?" And so I know that Nancy Mee and I used to, every once in a while we’d go over there with this piece of paper that said "Out of Order" and we’d tape it on calliope, just to give us some peace.  


Having the space that I did down there really did help me in terms of the work that I’m doing now, in a lot of intangible ways. You know, the quality of light, the space, the amount of space, the kind of space where I was. Did I have big walls? Did I only have small walls?  Did I have a lot of windows? How did the light come in? Could I kind of test sunlight's effects on material, or does it shine when I turn it this way or that way? And so there are innumerable ways where spaces really make that difference.

And for me I think that being in that kind of a space, a large space, really allowed my work to expand in ways that I wouldn’t have otherwise. And I was able to make really big works on paper because I could work on the wall, but some of the material I used was powdered so I actually couldn’t work on the wall so I had to work on the floor. But I had enough floor space, and enough space around it where I could work on paper that was six feet by 10 feet and things like that, that … I couldn’t have imagined doing in another, smaller space.

So, I think that, for visual artists especially, space does make a difference.


I mean, I can't say "This aspect of the waterfront is in this work, and that aspect is in this work." But I do think that where we are and the environment we’re in really does influence us in some ways, even though I don’t literally make images of water and stuff like that.

But I still do work with water as an idea, and I think part of it is being close to it and seeing how much it actually changes and the kind of nature of it, which ... you know I feel really privileged to have been able to look out on Elliott Bay for 30 years worth of change in weather, and light, and seasons and, you know, activity level and … that kind of relationship that I have with bodies of water I think are pretty much from that, having been there. And I miss it now.  

You know, I think Seattle is unusual in the way that water becomes your orientation so easily, and that for me in many cities I never know which way is north or south. But in Seattle it's just so innate, and part of it is that. It’s the water, but it’s also the combination of the light and the water, I think, that really make a difference.

I can always tell the difference between the bay and the lake. You know, there’s just -- it’s a qualitative difference in how the water appears in those two places. It’s not just the size of the body of water ... it’s just, water behaves -- is different -- and I think kind of recognizing the subtleties of that comes from being at the edge of a place ... that is always changing, like a body of water.


Dominic Black interview with Norie Sato, May 2015.

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