Mixed Media

The Colorful World of Harumo Sato

Her playful work belies provocative themes

Photo: Tran Tran

By Heather Bourbeau

The first thing you notice is the use of color. Harumo Sato (BA ’15) is not afraid to juxtapose bright greens and blues with purples and oranges, making her work feel cheerful even when the subject is dark. “Using colors is like living in the moment,” she explains. “The brightness of the color is most powerful when it is freshly painted. Like life, it is not eternal.”

Originally from Japan, Sato, 31, has explored a range of subjects in her brief but prolific career as an illustrator and artist, from pizza parties to a character named “egg boy” who is trying to break out of his shell. But there are themes that recur: ancient folklore, Japanese mythology, food.

On Jan. 16, 2011, Sato’s life took a sharp curve when her right arm became paralyzed. Doctors were unable to explain why it happened. At the time, she was working as a communications planner at an advertising agency in Japan. She had to leave her job and learn to rely on her left hand and arm.

Her mother reintroduced her to a designer (Sato had taken art classes from him as a child) who had suffered a stroke and trained himself to draw in new ways; she thought his approach might help rehabilitate Sato’s arm. It did help but, perhaps even more importantly, it reacquainted Sato with her love of drawing. “On our first day of exercises, he taped a pen to my right hand and said, ‘Draw!’” she laughs. “I couldn’t feel anything in my right arm. I was pushing that arm with my left arm. But I learned that nothing is impossible.”

Sato peruses her work with husband Ian Farneth, whom she met at UB. Photo: Tran Tran

Two months after Sato’s paralysis struck, the massive Fukushima earthquake further rocked her world. Sato’s home prefecture of Tochigi is next to Fukushima. Houses around hers were destroyed. She watched people die on television. “I thought I was one of the most powerless people, but after the earthquake I realized that I was one of the luckiest. I could still use the rest of my body,” she says. “Now I think, ‘How can I maximize the use of this imperfect body?’”

She enrolled at UB, thinking it was close to New York City, but even after realizing her mistake she was happy with her choice, especially after taking a summer course at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. “Buffalo offered me more freedoms than New York City,” she says. “You can concentrate on what you want to do.” Buffalo also was where she regained the full use of her right arm (she can now draw with either hand) and met her future husband, an engineer, in a UB art class.

She also developed a relationship with the Western New York Book Arts Center (WNYBAC), which hosted her “Mogu Mogu ~ Munch Munch” exhibition in 2016. In it, pairs of screen prints with names like “Fish Theme” and “Meat Theme” contrast our modern relationship with food, in which we distance ourselves from the cycle of life and death that feeds us, with a more traditional understanding of where our food comes from, as viewed through the lens of Japanese mythology. “I wanted people to think about how and where we are getting our food, rather than just eating everything in front of us,” Sato says.

Though Sato and her husband, Ian Farneth (MS ’16, BS ’14), have moved to Silicon Valley, she will return to WNYBAC this July for an exhibition of prints and paintings exploring her latest preoccupation: inner peace. Sato says her personal journey—through the paralysis of her arm, the disaster in Fukushima, even living as an immigrant in the United States—all helped her push away negative thoughts and be more present in the moment. “People here are always online,” she says. “It is hard to find peace of mind, which makes it hard to find peace in the world.”

More works by Harumo Sato: