NORIKO KATO, 25, was born in Aomori, Japan and now lives in West Seattle in the basement of her host family’s home. She is an artist who works in the Sumi-e style, an ancient Japanese form of ink painting. Last year she had an exhibit in New York City, and she continues to show her work around Seattle. Her “Happy Pig” was stationed across from the Westin Hotel as part of this summer’s Pigs on Parade. She also works as a graphic designer and part-time at the Maruta grocery store in Georgetown. Jenn Wynne
Seattle Weekly: How did you end up in this house?
Noriko Kato: I visited my friends in Seattle and fell in love with Seattle. So I applied to South Seattle Community College, where they have a homestead program that allows international students to live here for the first time. It is easier to feel more secure with a host family. You can learn the culture, learn to speak English. So the program chose me an American family, and I got the basement. I got the private door, and the kitchen and bathroom, and washer and dryer. I was lucky, because some of my friends have a terrible host family; they get just one room in the whole building, and they have to share the bathroom and everything. And so, I am so lucky. My friends have to move into an apartment or something because they don’t get along with their host families, but my host family, they are really so nice, and we share foods and conversation. I give them Japanese food and they give me really home-style American food, and they invite me to their parties—birthday parties or friends. They are really nice to me. I am so fortunate.
You’ve been living here for how long?
Have you done anything special to decorate your house?
Everything was furnished: the bed, the couch, the kitchen table and chairs—everything. I wanted to decorate a certain way but since it was already furnished, I cannot do that. But I am happy with what I have.
Could you describe the furniture you have? How does it compare to what you would buy yourself?
They’re more like antiques compared to what I’d buy myself, like Oriental stuff, but they’re simple enough. So it’s a mixture of Oriental and Western in my room.
Tell me about your art.
I do Japanese Sumi and watercolors. Sumi-e is a Japanese word that means “ink picture.” Ink painting was developed in China as early as 200 or 300 A.D. Sumi colors are high-quality Japanese watercolors used by Sumi-e painters. These Japanese watercolors are really different than Western watercolors because these have bright pigment; you don’t have to mix with anything. I learned Japanese calligraphy when I was in school so it was very natural for me to work with Sumi. Those mediums are from Japan, and I’m Japanese-everything came together. I’d like to give relaxation, joy, and hope to everyone through my artwork, and teach the beauty of Japanese. It’s the best medium for me to express myself as artist.
And can you explain the long mural hanging up on your wall?
I painted it at Aki Matsuri Japan Festival held at Bellevue Community College on Sept. 23. That was part of performing art events on that day. I collaborated with Chieko Kikuchi, who is a very good piano player. She played her piano, and I painted “the beauty of God.” Interesting part is that it was art of improvisation. Everything came out spontaneously. I was nervous if I can finish painting on the huge cloth [about 5 yards long] in 30 minutes, but I am very happy with the results.
How does it feel to live in a basement?
It wasn’t as bad as I thought. Temperature remains the same throughout a year, so it’s good for people who don’t like hot weather. Have you ever lived in one before?
How much light do you get?
I get enough light, but I need more sunlight for my plants!
What sort of living situation did you come from in Japan?
I had lived with my family in a house with lots of nature. I see mountains and rice fields all over from our living room. It’s very peaceful. Now that I think about it, I really miss my hometown!
Has living in a basement affected your art at all?
No. My art comes from my heart.
Do you garden at all? [Outside there is a beautiful, large garden.]
Oh no. That’s theirs. They told me I could garden right there [pointing to a space near her front door]. I tried to grow cilantro. But, uh, I was never really successful. But I love gardening.
Is there anything you’re missing?
I wish I had a bathtub, I just have a shower. So I bought this really wonderful basket. It’s my bathtub and it fits in my shower so once in a while I do that. And it really works, because you know Japanese love to take a bath. Western bathtubs are long, but in Japan we have really deep sinks so you sit in deep water in the tub, so this basket is a perfect temporary solution.
How much time do you spend here?
I am here all the time. I only work part-time. I spend most of the time here with my business, calling my friends, watching TV. I don’t really go out, so people usually come to my house. So I am usually here.