Q&A with Tim Okamura: A Painter with a Purpose

August 29, 2013

An eclectic heritage, a penchant for hip-hop, and life as an artist in New York City set Tim Okamura (MFA 1993 Illustration as Visual Essay) on a path toward social consciousness. Collected by celebrity clients (including Uma Thurman, Questlove and John Mellencamp) and exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery in London, his portraits are meant to “contribute a positive voice to the conversations going on today.” Okamura’s paintings in “The Pond, the Mirror, the Kaleidoscope” depict a trio of female boxers, suggesting women’s plight for equality and justice.

Tim-Studio-1You’re known for your paintings of African American women.  You’re half-Japanese, half-Caucasian and you grew up in Canada. Many of your paintings celebrate the New York street scene. How did this juxtaposition come about?
It’s a question that comes up often—and it’s really not a short answer for me—and it’s very intriguing to me that there are people who tend to find the juxtaposition of the work, and who I am, quite “conceptual.” It’s something I hadn’t fully considered when I began making the work. The idea that there would be an intertwining assessment of both model and artist when looking at the work was vaguely in the back of my mind, but it never influenced my choices. As someone who has focused primarily on portraiture up to this point in my career, I think the biggest factor in choosing my subjects has always just been a deep interest in the “stories” of the people I paint. I consider portraiture a form of story-telling as it relates to the subject, and I really wanted to discover or reveal to my audience stories that I felt were compelling, and perhaps had not been told previously.

Moving to New York from Canada in the early 90s planted me in the heart of everything I loved at that time in my life: the burgeoning hip-hop scene (I had hosted a hip-hop radio show in Calgary), rock music clubs, graffiti, cutting-edge fashion and design, and world class galleries and museums. Visceral inspiration was exploding all around me as soon I walked out my door in Chelsea, but my new environment, first and foremost, exposed me to amazing new personal narratives that I wanted to somehow capture a part of on canvas.

I painted my way through many different subjects, including my hip-hop heroes; I did self-portraits, or portraits of mostly male friends–whoever was around really–before eventually becoming focused on the idea of portraying women, which I had always found to be more challenging to depict. In particular, I found myself drawn towards the character and narratives of African American and other women who were being defined as “visible minorities,” a label I always regarded with some disdain, and that I wanted to address head-on in some way.

It became more clear as I continued down this path that these women personified a segment of our society that had been under-represented, even neglected, in the history of figurative painting and narrative works. At once, I found myself absorbed with representing my subjects in a way that was simultaneously honest and truthful to my eye, but was also concerned with a respectful portrayal of the grace and dignity of those who sat for me. The balancing act between academic ideals as a painter, an emotional exploration of a somewhat unfamiliar subject, and the desire to include contemporary motifs that surrounded me on a daily basis in New York City began to define what I considered my purpose as a painter.

I think there is an additional layer of psychological interest for me in that my vision is filtered through the lens of my personal experience as someone of mixed race growing up in Canada. I was often identified as being “different” and even persecuted for this perception. As a result, I tended to form friendships with minority kids and anyone who might have felt excluded from the “mainstream.” This has had a significant impact on my view of the world, my desire for social justice and equality, and my long-standing motivations as an artist who is interested primarily in people.

My work, to this point, has been an exploration of the beauty, strength, courage and stoicism I’ve found in the women I’ve been fortunate enough to work with. It’s also a process of discovery, through my models, of metaphors for deeper spiritual truths that pertain to the human condition.

Box200So what’s up with the female boxers? What inspired that as a topic? Does this indicate a new direction for you?
The idea to explore boxing was inspired by a documentary film I’ve been fortunate to be one of the subjects of, called Heavyweightpaint. The filmmaker is a former amateur boxer, and the metaphor of boxing had sort of organically come up throughout the early stages of filming. There are three other painters in the film, and we knew we wanted to push towards doing a show together as an end point of the experience. We were struggling to come up with a theme for the exhibition when it occurred to me that boxing made sense. In fact, the title of the film was already in place, but for some reason we had kept overlooking the obvious.

It also clicked when I decided that I would paint exclusively women for my take on the subject. The work had really been about discovering and portraying the strength, courage and stoicism of women, but was now also going to be about exploring the metaphor of fighting: fighting personal battles and fighting for sexual equality, racial equality and justice in broader terms.

I have more ideas I want to explore, but this feels more like a specific series than a long-term direction for the work. There are other metaphorical devices I want to utilize in the future after the boxing motif.

Your work is collected by an eclectic mix of celebrities, from Uma Thurman to Questlove and John Mellencamp. Have you received any feedback from them? Is it meaningful to you that your work is in their collections?
Yes. I’ve been really blessed to have had the opportunity to connect with a number of very talented creative people whose work I really love and respect. The connections happened through various circumstances, but it has certainly been meaningful in every case. Having a chance to do a portrait of Uma Thurman was crazy, good crazy. She’s beautiful and witty, and (at six feet tall) a bit intimidating. The painting was still a work in progress, but I showed it to her and her response was, “You have totally captured me. I am an alien.” I wasn’t sure what to do with that feedback, and it led to some sleepless nights. Lol. But in the end she liked it.

Questlove commissioned a painting for himself, which he was really happy with. But the best part was he came to my studio to pick it up himself and we ended up hanging out for a good while. We chopped it up about everything from Philly to politics to hip-hop. It was an awesome experience. I still connect with him from time to time, and he graciously accepted our recent invitation to DJ for the boxing-themed exhibition related to the documentary. He’s super cool.

John Mellencamp is a painter himself and has an incredible collection of paintings, including French post-impressionist and German expressionist works. He owns several of my paintings, so it’s really incredible to be in the same collection as some of my favorite masters. It’s really an honor. John is hilarious too—the classic salty, Harley-Davidson riding, rock ‘n’ roll dude. I had the chance to hang out with him for quite a while at his estate in Indiana when he commissioned me to paint a portrait of his sons. He came to a show recently along with Meg Ryan, and said, “I’m going to ask you the same question I asked (Bob) Dylan: how the f**k do you do it?” That kind of blew my mind.

Tim-Studio-2Please tell us about your family’s experience in the internment camp. Is that narrative played out in your work?
My father’s family were victims of the Japanese internment initiative during World War II. It happened to Canadian Japanese as well as American Japanese at that time. Honestly, I don’t know a lot of the nitty-gritty details. I think the experience was always too painful for him or my grandparents to discuss at any length. But the basic version is that one day the Canadian government, believing they would aid and abet the Japanese forces, alerted every family of Japanese heritage living on the west coast that they had less than a week to report to a train station. Otherwise, even though the large majority were Canadian citizens—in fact my grandmother was born in Canada—they would be arrested. They were allowed to bring one suitcase per family member, and the government seized their homes, their cars, all their possessions. They basically were left with the clothes on their backs, and the life they worked so hard to create was taken from them. Gone.

My father’s family ended up in an internment camp in the prairie province of Alberta, and were re-assigned to farms to work and “start over.” They were given a small plot of land and, I believe, a small amount of money to buy equipment and seeds for sugar beets. There was no house on the land, just a chicken coop, which my father’s family (five kids at that time) all had to live inside. As they made a little money selling their crops, they’d slowly add small rooms. Eventually they managed to build a modest little wooden house. All the kids had to work on the farm before and after school in order for the family to survive and scrape by. My father is a workaholic to this day, even though he’s retired.

I haven’t directly explored this narrative, and I’m not sure if I ever will, but it is a testament to the evils of prejudice and racism. It had a profound impact on me at a young age. The idea that humans can inflict such cruelty and suffering on one another is tragic. The fact that it continues in other manifestations today is almost incomprehensible.

I think what it did impress upon me as an artist is that I wanted to work in a mode that would possibly allow for some form of socially conscious themes. In recent years I’ve more overtly instilled uplifting messages in the thematic content of the work. It has felt natural for me to contribute a positive voice to the conversations going on today.

I recently discovered a quote from Susan Sontag that really resonated with me: “Making social comment is an artificial place for an artist to start from. If an artist is touched by some social condition, what the artist creates will reflect that, but you can’t force it.”

Who were your mentors at SVA and what was the most memorable advice you received?
Marshall Arisman
, John Foote, Greg Crane and, of course, Tom Woodruff all impacted me as an aspiring painter, and all in different ways. With John, the advice was about the basics of academic painting and construction of portrait. With Greg, it was about nuances of light and shadow and composition. With Tom, it was about looking for “a moment” in an image, injecting a coloristic surprise and defining what a painting was about from the artist’s perspective. As for Marshall, I remember him best for sharing his philosophy on how to approach life as an artist, how to cope with living as a creative being in a world that is generally not designed for us. He had a lot of quotes that still stick with me; one that comes to mind was “Find yourself a woman who will support you no matter what, even when she realizes ‘the work’ will always come first.” Still looking, by the way.

You’ve been shortlisted for a commissioned portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. Any thoughts about painting the Royal Baby? [Tongue-in-cheek question!]
I think if you asked me 10 years ago I would have said yes, no questions asked, but I’ve had to paint a baby or two (or three) in my career, and I don’t really enjoy it. Babies are just unformed little humans—no defining physical characteristics, cute, but not interesting to me as a painter— and the parents get really fussy about the tiniest little details. It’s just not an enjoyable experience all the way around. I can only imagine the next level of stress that would come with having to paint the Royal Baby. No thanks. I was told I would be in consideration to paint Harry or William, though. Probably a better fit, but still waiting.

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