Tim Okamura is in the midst of a classic Libran conundrum: finding balance. He feels most centered when he is both creating his magnificent art and writing and performing music, but the music of late, has been eclipsed by painting. Likened to a contemporary Caravaggio, he is astonishingly gifted at unifying the incongruous styles of classical realism with the vernacular of the streets; Baroque oils and aerosol-sprayed tags holding equal and elevated status. Though he has a solid academic foundation in the classics, he hasn’t mastered the nuance of “can control” and respects the work of “true graffiti writers,” sometimes collaborating with them in his work. “The skills that some of these kids have are just mind-blowing,” he says. This synthesis of schools speaks to the layered complexity of the experience of those in society’s margins: people of color, women. His exploration of these “under-represented narratives” has thrust him headlong into back-to-back exhibitions over the past couple of months. His latest, Depicted/Connected opened last week at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery at The Smith Center in Washington, DC (through Oct. 31,) where I, along with other District-born women were delighted to see our likenesses immortalized by his masterful brushstrokes.
I happened to be in my hometown back in June when he photographed the subjects for these portraits and was thrilled to participate since I’ve been digging his work for a while. Two weeks later, both back in Brooklyn, we sat down for a chat at his home studio in Bushwick, a ground floor apartment with an attached garage filled with canvases, props and a gravity-defying paint palette.
A nocturnal being, he apologized for his grogginess, explaining “I find that during the day there’s distraction; emails and so much crap going on, I just can’t seem to buckle down on the painting. I can at night.” He enjoys the stillness as he works into the wee hours, but “I love sleep, take naps,” he says. After agreeing that napping is one of the finer things one can do, we get on to his beginnings, and how a Japanese-Canadian male portraitist has become known for creating exquisitely rendered images of African-American women. Some with quiet dignity; some in-your-face fly; all with soulful nobility.
The first-born of Masato (Mas) and Ruby Okamura’s three children, Tim inherited his educator parents’ creative urges. “When I was about ten years old, my dad and I would go to oil painting lessons together,” he recalls. “My dad definitely had the talent, but the circumstances of his life, the era he grew up in, being an artist was just not an option.” His mother, a voracious reader, is “an incredible writer,” he says. “My writing skills come from her.” She may have had a writing life, “if offered different options.” he speculates. “Both of my parents had tough circumstances in their personal histories.” His sensitivity to the plight of oppressed people starts with his own family. He goes on to explain that his father’s family was among the many Japanese families in the US and Canada subjected to internment during World War II. Forced from their coastal home, leaving behind a life of fishing and most of their belongings, they were “relocated” to an inland internment camp. Given a choice between raising chickens or growing sugar beets on a plot of land assigned him and his family, Tim’s grandfather chose the beets. The small plot had no house, only a chicken coop. The structure designed to shelter chickens became home to Mr. and Mrs. Okamura and their five children. Tim shakes his head as he tells the story. “The kids went straight to the fields to work after school.” With money earned from their beet harvest, the family made incremental additions to the coop to create a home. “It’s crazy. They had to work from nothing to rebuild their lives…” Tim’s voice trails off.
Ruby’s father, as a young man in the Canadian Merchant Marines, witnessed the decapitation of his best friend by a chunk of shrapnel during an attack by the Japanese. His buddy had only recently been transferred to the destroyer he was on; his gruesome end fueled enmity toward Japan.
That Mas and Ruby would marry was a courageous move for their time. ”When my mother and father got together, on my father’s side it was white folks put us in prison; on my mom’s side it was the Japanese are sworn enemies. They almost had to elope. Discrimination was a major thing they had to overcome, so it was ingrained in us kids to be open.”
Growing up the child of Asian and Caucasian parents, Tim experienced a sense of otherness that gives him an understanding of what it is to be marginalized, misunderstood and even misidentified (he and his siblings were often assumed to be Native American.) ”I had all kinds of painful experiences: was picked on, called names, got into scuffles, but the one thing that saved my ass was being able to draw. As a kid, if you get positive reinforcement from something you’re good at and it wins friends for you, you go with it. Is the reason that girl talked to you because you did a cool drawing for your science report title page? So you think oh my God, it’s the one thing that’s getting me some respect.”
The long winters of Edmonton, where Tim was born, were conducive to three things: hockey, skiing and holing up indoors. “We all played a little bit of street hockey, pickup games, not in an organized league. I’m still a huge hockey fan, though. It’s in the blood.” He recalls that “we have a couple of the Wayne Gretzky rookie cards and those are worth at least a couple grand depending on the condition. Not bad for kids buying little 25, 50-cent packs of cards with gum in it.”
When the weather limited activities to indoor pursuits, it encouraged creative endeavor. “You had to entertain yourself,” he says. “It was incredible how many people were in bands. At 13, 14-years-old, among our circle of friends we had three or four different bands and then in high school it was even more. That’s all there was to do. The fact that I was a little bit of a different kid growing up: kind of artsy, kind of nerdy, didn’t quite fit in, I ended up gravitating toward other outcasts. My band was called The Outcasts. We wore army jackets,” he laughs. It was the classic high school set-up: jocks, nerds, outcasts, and the weird artsy people.” He learned to code-switch which made it possible for him to “jump around with different groups and get along with most people.” He attributes this to having developed empathy early on. “I’ve always felt very much in touch with the underdog mentality; giving attention to subjects that other people have ignored.”
During his college days at the Alberta College of Art and Design, he hosted an alternative rock radio show and eventually a hip-hop radio show, the only one in Calgary at that time. ”Guests would come through to our little station at the university.” Two guests stand out: Ice-T and Will Smith. “I had a big sit-down interview with him right before he started on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I have a recording of that somewhere– Will Smith joking around.” I ask if he’s had it digitized. ”No, it’s on cassette, but I should transfer it before it dissolves,” he laughs. “Super charming guy, super gracious. Ice-T same thing. That’s been my experience with anybody I’ve met who’s been very successful in hip-hop. Really cordial, really conscientious. I think those guys understood something; that you had to be easy to work with. It was such a new medium, there wasn’t the idea of the mogul at that time. People just wanted to get their records played.”
“In the eighties, I was experiencing the new wave and the alternative rock thing, but hip-hop blew the doors off for me: Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, the Colors movie soundtrack with Big Daddy Kane,” he says nostalgically. ”It was just so real, so exciting. I’ve always loved beats. In any rock song, I’d listen for a drum breakdown. I’d listen to jazz to hear the drum solos. There was always something about beats and drums that I really, really connected with. In an alternative life, I would have been a drummer.”
Armed with a BFA from ACAD and reluctant blessings from his folks, Tim left Calgary for his bite of the Big Apple in 1991. “Even before I moved here, I fell in love with the city. Everything was here. I had to convince my parents that it was a smart business decision for my education and that I’d have better opportunities.” He did his graduate studies in Illustration as Visual Journalism (MFA,1993) at the School of Visual Arts “as an extension of the commercial art/graphic design/illustration track I was on in college,” he says. ”The journalistic aspect of it was an interesting twist because it pushed the idea of narrative and documentation. We had incredible life drawing classes with Robert Weaver, a well-respected, pioneer illustrator who would bring in all these New York characters for us to draw. He wouldn’t just bring in a nude model, he’d bring in people from the FDNY, window washers, guys who hand out flyers, Guardian Angels, musicians, belly dancers, all kinds of people. That was an awesome way to interact with New York and see the richness, the soul in all these characters. The idea of story, of people’s stories left a real impression on me.”
He has an affinity for unvarnished expression–the grit and beauty of the real and likens himself to a documentarian. “Of course it’s going to be a little more subjective since its going through my eye and through my hand,” he adds. “I want to capture this time that we’re in, but in a timeless way. Two seemingly disparate ideas. I like seeing in a Rembrandt (one of his “heroes of European painting”) the fashion of the day and the graphic impact of a huge, white collar, but I think we have things that are equally visually powerful in this time– I’ve always been fascinated with hoodies. They’ve come up in the work a lot.”
“To see real New York graffiti, here in the birthplace of hip-hop, that had a huge impact. This collision of stuff, the classical work of the old masters and street art,” informs his work today. He frequently incorporates graff elements in “homage to graffiti,” he says. “I like the direct lineage from cave painting; the idea of graffiti being a history; wanting to express visually that you were there. That impulse has throughout time taken on different forms.” He mentions the excavated Egyptian Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where 19th century archaeologists etched their names and the year in the stone surface. “If you look closely, you see graffiti from the 1800′s. Even before the explosion of painted graffiti you would see it in schools, kids carving their names into the desks. This idea that I exist, I’m going to leave a mark fascinates me. I’ve always loved calligraphy and typography too, so it’s a combination of things that came into the work.”
Educating himself on contemporary art added another dimension. “To see the freedom and energy and intensity– everything that made Basquiat great, is gonna influence anybody. I connected with facets of different painters. I don’t necessarily engage with Julian Schnabel’s whole body of work, but I do with his written word stuff on found canvases. I’m doing work now on flags for this new series, Begin Transmission and I’m kinda influenced by how he did it. I’m a bit of a hybrid of all the painters I’ve looked at and cycled through. At one point I really tried to be like Lucian Freud; another I really tried to paint like Rembrandt.” And at some point he found himself. “I worked for many years commercially, I just painted and painted, building my chops and putting in the hours. I did a lot of cheesy work, a lot of terribly embarrassing commissioned stuff, but my ultimate goal was always to do work that would hang in a gallery one day.” Along the way he has also been an adjunct professor at Parsons School of Design and the City University of New York/City College and a lecturer at both Fashion Institute of Technology and St. John’s University.
Being in New York has afforded Tim myriad opportunities. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson commissioned a piece years ago. “When he came over to my place to pick it up, he ended up talking for hours. That experience was awesome. Quest is like a walking encyclopedia of everything hip-hop.” In the early aughts, Tim’s former band mate, Jeff Steinhauser opened the rock club Northsix in Williamsburg and asked if he’d like to hang his work. “I had nothing else going on so I hung some paintings.” While working on a screenplay about a writer, filmmaker Ben Younger saw the work, visited Tim’s studio and was inspired to change the lead character to a painter. “So that was the beginning of this incredible journey which resulted in Prime with Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep,” Tim recalls. “The character was a sort of surrogate me: he lived in Williamsburg, he was a painter, struggling. I even gave wardrobe some of my clothes. I was the technical advisor on that film and ended up filming as a hand double for Bryan Greenberg, the lead actor, as well.” Though Bryan had a painting tutorial from Tim, his skill level wasn’t quite what was needed for the painting scenes. “Ben wanted to see brushstrokes on canvas, creating a face. So they looked at Bryan’s hands — he’s got reddish-brown hair and really light, almost blond arm hair, and they looked at mine.” He affects a harried voice, “get Klaus, get Klaus from makeup we need a razor, we need a razor on set.’ So this German guy, Klaus, comes to set with shaving cream and a razor to shave my arm. It was so funny,” he laughs.
Northsix was rented out for the club scenes in the film School of Rock with Jack Black, so once again, Tim’s work made it to the screen. But for the first film he ever worked on, Unfaithful, the work didn’t make the final edit. The production commissioned a portrait to hang in the office of the lead character, portrayed by Richard Gere. “They wanted me to paint a portrait that sorta looked like him, an extrapolation, to be the character’s father. They spent all this money on set decoration.” He excitedly “went to go to see the film with one of the art directors and she’s like ‘okay, and you should see your painting riiiight here…and oh no, looks like its cut, cut from the film, sorry.’ In total, he worked on seven films “to greater or lesser extent in different capacities, but all involving my art in some way.” He relishes the collaborative effort. “Having spent so much time isolated as an artist, you know sitting in the studio, talking to yourself and all the other weird things, that when I did these projects that involved working with other people I was just so excited to be out, interacting AND have my art on set. I understand the addictive quality to working in film. Everything that’s going on just feels meaningful; it’s all very dynamic.” He even “dabbled a tiny bit in acting–a few short films. I enjoy the idea of shifting gears in different modes.”
His innate curiosity leads him to explore various means of expression, though portraiture remains a constant. “I’m curious about people, and that’s reflected in the work. I’m still interested in painting people. I haven’t gotten bored of looking at the features of somebody’s face.” Is there a specific facial type he’s most drawn to? “I like large eyes. As a painter, there’s something really satisfying about certain eye structures. The more round and big, the more it hits that academic, classical how-to-paint-an-eye, sort of mode that I always enjoy, but I have a pretty wide spectrum of what interests me in terms of subject. Like the challenge of painting someone with glasses.” We both laugh. “Which is tricky,” he says. “You have to understand the way the lens is refracting light and is causing some distortion in terms of where you’re going to see the face on the other side of the lens. You have to take those things into consideration. You can’t just paint the frames around the eyes normally. You have to reduce, depending on the prescription, the scale of the eye within the lens. My own experience of wearing glasses helps. One benefit of having glasses is knowing how glasses work.” That’s why it drives me crazy when I see people on TV who supposedly wear glasses, but you can tell it’s non-prescription it’s just so obvious.” He loves that actor Michael Emerson wears his own glasses on TV’s Persons of Interest. “You can tell; there’s distortion, he’s got a pretty strong prescription. Really freakin cool, that’s a rare thing to see on television or in Hollywood.”
“As a figurative painter, and as somebody who wants to deal with humans in a realistic representation in my work, there is an overarching theme: I am attracted to painting people who haven’t been painted before, whose stories have not been told before, whether literally or metaphorically. It’s become conceptual in a way that I never expected. When I was in college I was just painting my heroes and at the time they were people in hip-hop, and they happened to be African American.
Bemused by the manner in which the work “has taken on a life of its own” he says, “a painting I did a couple of years ago, Courage 3.0, seems to have made the rounds on social media.” Artist attribution is often abandoned in online forwards, “so to a large extent it was anonymous, but everyone was grabbing onto that image.” From curator Thelma Golden (who did credit him on Instagram) to someone who in a bit of internet chicanery passed it along as the work of his own brother. Interestingly, when Tim was finally given proper credit, there was a minor backlash for cultural appropriation. Ultimately, he says, “whether or not people were disappointed in the skin color of the person who did it, the painting did resonate.”
As an artist who began his career prior to the dawn of social networking, he realizes the tremendous impact and immediacy of social media. “To me its been a benefit. It’s helped to spread the word and build audiences in places I never would have had access to. People can see the work around the world within a day, whereas before you were lucky to carve out a niche in the city you were working in. It’s mind-blowing. I can go to Paris and have a built-in audience for my work and I’ve never shown in Paris.” He uses it simply as a tool of introduction. “It’s an impression of the work, but it’s not the work. So when people do see one of my shows, there’s a revelation. There is so much texture. And the scale is a huge part of someone’s experience of the work.” As evidenced here, Tim’s digital images are impressive, but they pale in comparison to viewing in actu. “In this day and age with everything being so fast you can’t even fully absorb or process what you’re seeing because it’s moving so quickly,” he says, “to have those people who are used to that type of imagery and that kind of processing to slow down, stop and look at an oil painting on canvas and have it resonate it is encouraging. It shows that the power of the painted image is still something valid.”
I notice his abundantly tattooed forearms. Among the tats are a compass pointing True North and the Latin fortis or “strong,” grounding him in family. He speaks with pride of his siblings. Sister Julie is “a super ambitious, talented interior designer. She has two offices: one in Calgary and one in Los Angeles where she lives. I’m so impressed with her. When she locks onto an idea there’s just no stopping her; she’s laser-beam focused. My little brother, Kevin is a physical therapist in the upper echelon of advanced training; he’s taught therapists all over the world: South America, South Africa, he’s been to Turkey many times, and all over the US. His fiance (now wife) is a doctor, so I get them on Skype with my old man pains.” Laughing at his own hypochondriac angst he says “This thing… I think I’m dying. Then they talk me off the ledge. Between the two of them, it’s awesome, to have a physician AND a physical therapist in the family.” When we met for this interview, he was planning to play a couple of songs at Kevin’s August wedding. “One is my old standby that I play at family reunions: Brown-eyed Girl,and luckily Melissa is a brown-eyed girl.”
The lovely family Okamura: Tim’s parents, Ruby and Mas at the Depicted/Connected opening; sister Julie and brother Kevin with his bride, Melissa on their wedding day.
He realizes he needs to dust off the ax to prepare for the wedding. He bought a guitar which he loves about a year ago, but has yet to play it. “I feel perfectly balanced when I’m playing music and painting. That’s the thing that’s been bugging me a little over the past few years.–I haven’t been playing music.” He acknowledges that he needs a studio manager, “who could really be an extension of my brain” to free him to focus on creating–whether it’s art or music. “When I’m playing music and writing in a spontaneous way it helps balance the process of painting which is generally slower paced and labor-intensive. I’m at my happiest when those two things are happening. I’ve got to get back in the (recording) studio.”
In the quest for balance, he has discovered in his meditation “that when I quiet down my inner dialogue and am thinking less, ideas start to come in seemingly from outside of self — a little taste of that field of infinite possibility.” A song, a book, clothing ideas. ”It’s just a matter of time management which I’m horrible at,” he says. Having executed the project Heavyweight Paint with filmmaker, Jeff Martini, however, has given him an empowering sense of completion. “It started as a 2 minute promo for my website. Then we expanded it to a documentary on four artists. We have followed through and made it happen from a seed of an idea to execution.”
“I’ve convinced friends to allow me to direct their music video and I’m psyched about that. I’m halfway done recording an album; singing and playing guitar. I have a lot of material but the painting has just steamrolled it for the past couple of years.” He played a recording for me, the yearning, melancholy Broken Deal, written in the aftermath of a breakup with the muse for several works. The music proved therapeutic, (“got me out of the pain of it”) as he had to push through completing about eight paintings of his former love. He and Bryan Greenberg joined forces on an “REM-ish” track and he is contemplating releasing an EP before finishing an entire album.
Les Nubians Combat Pour L’Amour, 2013; Spirit, 2013.
As he boosts his energy with kombucha, we take a walk thru his art-dipped nabe where fantastic murals abound, to his other nearby workspace. Of his upper-floor studio, dappled with sunlight and boasting a river view he says, “psychologically it’s improved my whole existence.”
I am awed by pieces from the Round Zero show I’d missed. Sisters Hélène and Célia Faussart of Les Nubians, stand back-to-back, fists up, strong. Artist and breast cancer survivor Heather Hart in a powerful boxing stance, triumphant. To see them up close in all their textural glory was to be renewed.
Tim’s been pondering “a biological theory that there’s a finite number of facial types,” and his own ”collector mentality, the idea that you want to have a collection of all the variations as is possible. That might be what I do for the last twenty years of my life, try to paint every single facial type — a lot of work — then do a show.”
His trove is a collection of treasures within his home, each imbued with history, each with a story to tell.
1. Samurai swords. They honor his Japanese heritage, and stoke his fascination with the weaponry of antiquity. “As late as the 17th century, they were still a feudal society riding horses and using swords.”
2. Armor of Feudal Japan. “In stark contrast to what the nobles/officers of the Samurai would have worn (top center,) this is essentially foot soldiers armor (top right.) It’s made to roll up. I imagine the story: a farmer on the feudal lands, the samurai call to arms. He wouldn’t have had a sword, just a hat and this armor. It’s had many repairs… I love seeing battle-used stuff.”
3. California Job Case. Once used to store movable type for letterpress printing, this nod to his love of letterforms holds type pieces and other curios: a corn-cob pipe, apothecary bottles, rubber stamps, even “a cool little tin for your Tums to go in.”
4. Vintage baseball, bat and mitt. “I love wood and leather,” he says. The pièce de résistance in this trio is the 19th century, cloth-wrapped baseball bat.
5. Korean War bugle. It has developed a wonderful patina and still gets good sound.
6. Vintage boxing gloves. He’s collected many pieces of vintage boxing paraphernalia (seen in his Round Zero series,) but this nearly threadbare pair, with its pitted texture is his favorite.
7. His guitar. He longs for more time in his hectic schedule to play it.
8. Music. He loves listening to it, writing it and performing it. Here, his favorite records, yes he still listens to vinyl.
9. His paint palette. He admits it began out of laziness, “I just kept putting new paint over top of it. It’s become sort of a fun sculpture. It’s about nine years of paint, though its been cut down recently, it started to get impractical,” he laughs. “I want to saw it, get a really clean cross section of the layers.”
10. Concert photo of Nas. A silent auction win from Russell Simmons’ Art For Life fundraiser in the Hamptons, it’s the only piece of intentional art he’s purchased and displayed in his home. He loves the contrast of the “super-mixed crowd: Asian, Black, White, everybody going crazy,” rendered in black & white with Mr. Jones in full color.
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