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Originally published Sunday, July 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Longtime light-rail artist Norie Sato is 'curator' of Link station art

Seattle artist Norie Sato takes on a big, multifaceted role in the creation of the public artwork along Sound Transit's new Link Light Rail system.

Seattle Times arts writer

Map | Sound Transit art

Shown are public artworks associated with Link light rail. Some creations — such as "Stellar Connections" — recur at several points along the tracks; those are identified with the terms "along MLK corridor" or "systemwide."

Click here for a larger version of this map.


View Sound Transit art in a larger map

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Eleven years. Nine stations. Forty artists. And innumerable changes of plan.

Seattle artist Norie Sato's tenure with Sound Transit's Link light-rail project has consumed a sizable chunk of her life. The wonder is how readily she can laugh about all the permutations her multifaceted endeavor has gone through over the course of a decade.

Sato, who turns 60 this month, was hired by Sound Transit in 1998 as "system artist," a position entailing both creative input, with Sato contributing ideas and actual artwork to the system, and managerial savvy, as she helped coordinate the commissioning and placement of works by dozens of artists along the length of the light-rail line.

Link was her fourth light-rail public-art project, the others being in Phoenix, Portland and Salt Lake City. In Seattle, with her home-turf advantage, she found she was able for the first time to get down to "the nitty-gritty of things," working with engineers, architects, artists, administrators and city residents at every stage of the process.

"In Salt Lake City," she said at her Pioneer Square studio last month, "I never even saw an architect. I just worked with what already had been designed."

Sato has made some notable systemwide contributions to Link, including spiral-design tree grates on plazas near the stations and braided pavement patterns to help visually impaired patrons find their way on and off trains. But her larger role was to collaborate with artists Dan Corson, Sheila Klein, Nobohu Nagasawa and Tad Savinar in coming up with a constantly "brewing caldron of ideas."

"The five of us called ourselves the VAT: the Visual Arts Team," she says. "We made up a whole series of ideas for all kinds of things, from systemwide elements to various stations." Ten years later some of those ideas have been realized, while others have been abandoned or changed.

From the start, Sato was intent on putting "a lot of extra value" into the Rainier Valley stations, "the area where Link was the most visible, going through the city." Acting as a sort of "curator" for the valley's "family of stations," she pushed the notion of Link having "cultural conversations" with its surrounding neighborhoods.

Community input played a role throughout design development. Sato and her colleagues went to most of the public meetings in the neighborhoods, listening to residents and "looking for things that artists could respond to ... little bits of history, and stuff like that."

In some cases, public feedback changed the artworks in question. Roger Shimomura's "Rainier Valley Haiku," which plays mischievously with Asian stereotypes, originally was topped by "a white-looking hand that looked rather oppressive," Sato recalls. It was replaced by a graduation cap that carries its own ambiguous baggage — Asians as overachievers — but certainly works better in context.

Another change to the Shimomura piece: "The Creamsicle originally was a banana — or a pair of bananas. And 'banana' is one of those elements, like 'Oreo,' which is kind of a racial slur that's used not between races but inside the Asian community: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. That made a lot of people very uncomfortable, especially Sound Transit. They thought it was putting a racial slur out there in the artwork."

Shimomura changed it to a Creamsicle — "which has the same meaning, but isn't as loaded. ... Sometimes you just aren't sure how things will be read," Sato observes. "Being in the community process really allows you to look at your artwork from a different point of view. And I think it sometimes makes it better in a way. ... You can still be enigmatic and pointed and all that kind of stuff."

Another complication for artists: getting to where their work was being installed. Sato's colleague Corson, featured prominently in Beacon Hill's underground station, had to descend 25 flights of stairs to reach the platform for work.

If he forgot anything up top, Sato laughs, he had a real workout: "That's a lot of climbing."

Sato hasn't had a chance to ride Link yet — and she lives in Seattle's North End, where it won't be much help for getting her to her studio in Pioneer Square. Still, as a frequent traveler, she's sure she'll be using the system: "I hope to ride it to the airport."

Would she take on another project like this?

"I don't want to be typecast as a light-rail artist/transit artist — so every once in a while, I think not. But I guess I always want to think about how could I do it differently," she says, "and use all the lessons that I've learned from the various systems."

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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