By Judith Munson —
Inside the Satori Arts Gallery in downtown La Crosse, you’ll find an interesting mix of La Crosse history and artifacts from around the world. This collaboration is made possible by someone who’s traveled extensively but always finds his hometown to be the place he wants to stay.
“It’s my utopia, my Shangri-La,” says gallery owner John Satory. “I’ve never found a better place to live.”
He likes the city so much, one would be hard-pressed to find a board or council Satory has not served on or presided over. A city councilor for 16 years, he has also served as president of the Preservation Alliance of La Crosse, the Germany Sister City Committee, and the La Crosse County Historical Society in addition to serving on boards for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, Oktoberfest, Downtown Mainstreet, the Pump House and other local organizations.
“Well, I was a Boy Scout and we learned to serve,” says Satory, who also learned early the only way to impact local issues was to get involved. “I saw some of our grand buildings disappear downtown, so I ran for city council. One of the first things I accomplished was saving the last remaining tree next to the cathedral downtown. It’s still there today.”
Satory’s commitment to service started before his city council tenure. He enlisted in the Army right after high school and was deployed to Vietnam. As a reservist, he was reactivated for Desert Storm, so he served a total of 20 years. In the Army, he learned a skill that would transform into a lifelong art.
“While in Vietnam, I made dentures and gold crowns, and we used the Egyptian lost-wax technique where something is made out of wax and cast into metal,” he explains. This technique helped make Satory an award-winning silversmith and goldsmith. “I use this same process to make earrings, necklaces, rings and other pieces. I guess you could say the Army taught me a trade,” he laughs.
A lifelong collector of antiques and art, he founded Satori Arts Gallery in 1976. It’s been at its present location at 201 Pearl Street since the late 1980s. The gallery name ends with an “i” because that was how the family name was originally spelled. “My great-grandfather changed it when he came to America in the 1850s and settled in Wabasha,” he says. “I changed it back for the gallery because “satori” in Buddhism represents the highest level of enlightenment, and that’s how I feel about a work of art—it’s a flash of wisdom.”
Among his own metalsmith pieces, photography and graphic art, you’ll find world famous names such as Salvador Dali, John Lennon and Peter Max lining the walls. Closer-to-home items include local newspapers from the 1800s and other pieces of jewelry by Satory that tell a story from the region’s past.
“A lot of people don’t know many pearls—like those in the crown jewels of England—came from freshwater sources, like the Mississippi River, from our clams,” he says. “They used to take our clam shells and send them to Japan, where they would make spheres out of the mother-of-pearl shells. Those spheres were placed into oysters to make cultured pearls.”
The zebra mussel has decimated the region’s clam population, but Satory managed to find a use for those invasive nuisances. “I made earrings out of their shells. ‘They’re on everything,’ I told people, ‘They might as well be on your ears.’”
Dinosaur eggs, 2000-year-old Chinese pots, and meteorites are just some of the other finds at Satori Arts Gallery. It’s a place so unique it caught the eye of the “American Pickers” producers. Unbeknownst to them, Satory was already friends with co-star Frank Fritz. “I’d known Frank for years. He comes every year for Oktoberfest.”
When the crew arrived, they purchased a few things, but it wasn’t things they found the most interesting. “It was the stories,” begins Satory. “My father was a doctor in WWII, and I have wax moldings of GIs’ faces that he used to correct facial injuries. I worked with Cubans in the 1980s when they came to America. Frank and Mike were drawn to the jackets they made from army blankets in Cuba, hats from cardboard, pictures painted on bedsheets, because the refugees had no money and no stores to buy those things from.”
Whenever he travels, Satory likes to take a little piece of Pearl Street with him, whether he’s going to Paris, Africa or Hong Kong. “I always take a Pearl Street beer bottle with me. I like to create an image of the bottle turning into the Eiffel Tower or some famous landmark.” These photos are also available at the gallery.
As he credits one of Heileman’s first slogans (“You can travel the world over and never find a better beer”) for that idea, La Crosse can thank the fact that Satory has traveled the world over and never found a better place to live for his decades of service to the city.