Tim Okamura: Redefining Black Beauty and Spirituality
In the second part of our continuing series on artists in diaspora who promote Black identity and pride through their work, we present Canadian painter Tim Okamura.
Born in Edmonton, Canada, Tim Okamura earned a B.F.A. with distinction at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, Canada before moving to New York City to attend the School of Visual Arts in 1991.
Okamura investigates identity, the urban environment, metaphor, and cultural iconography through a unique method of painting – one that embraces an essentially ‘realist’ approach to the figure with collage, spray paint and mixed media. His juxtaposition of the rawness and urgency of street art and academic ideals has created a visual language that acknowledges a traditional form of story-telling through portraiture accompanied with resonant contemporary motifs.
In this interview with Omenka, he explains the hybridity inherent in his work, inspired by urban lifestyle and hip pop, his working techniques and process.
You hold a BFA with distinction and an MFA in illustration as visual journalism. How has your art evolved since then and how impactful has your academic training been on your personal style that fuses strongly classical realism with elements of graffiti?
I think there’s been quite a lot of growth since then, which is only natural – one would hope – since I was so young when I got my college degrees. And not just chronologically, I had a lot of maturing to do as a person as well. There has been so much to learn – it’s been a long journey. To be honest, and it’s incredible to feel this way, but sense that everything is only now coming together in a more holistic way in terms of my views on the art world, my career path to date, and my focus going forward.
I’m definitely grateful that I had the experiences I did in school – my BFA at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary gave me many tools besides strong fundamentals in drawing and painting. I did a lot of graphic design and typography that still inform my work today. My MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York helped me hone my painting skills, as well as showed me the power of observation. I think between grad school and just experiencing life in New York City I was given clues as to the myriad of possibilities that could come about from blending a more academic approach to the figure with the immediacy and graphic power of graffiti, collage, and street art sensibilities.
Your legacy is hinged majorly on the portrayal of the underrepresented and marginalised in society, as exemplified by your portraits of African-American women. At what point in your career did you realise it was important to project positively the Black race and was this decision informed by personal experiences?
Before I begin to answer that, I want to reiterate there is only one race, the human race. This is not just a personal viewpoint, it’s an indisputable fact: the DNA of any two human beings is 99.9% identical, we all share a single phenotype. So the concept of different races of humans is only a social concept, which unfortunately continues to be perpetuated. But I understand the reference.
In terms of the work, my choice of subjects came about in a natural way. I grew up with a group of friends who were diverse, and I often had them pose for my art projects. When I was younger, I didn’t necessarily understand the implications of painting my friends from Trinidad, for example, it was just what I did.
After I moved to New York I started to realise I was naturally drawn to painting people who not only represented a standard of beauty that was counter to the “formula” being sold by the mass media, but who also had a compelling story, and as I would discover through the process, an inevitably positive aura.
I think maybe there was an understanding that there was an extreme lack of representation in museums and galleries of women of colour, but really the primary motivation was a feeling that ‘you’re beautiful, you’re interesting, you’re deep – why has no one painted you before?’ It was a gut instinct more than anything, and I don’t think I realised at the time – more than 30 years ago – where it would all lead, and the ramifications of the work over time. I never had any thought that because I was not also a woman of colour, I couldn’t paint women of colour.
As I’ve progressed I’ve realised how important it is not to be governed by someone else’s opinion or subjective rules. It will weaken your art. You have to follow your muse and I’ve always thought everyone should be painting and drawing one another. How better to get more deeply connected to a fellow human, and how better to gain a more profound understanding of self?
Over the years, I’ve found myself absorbed with representing my subjects in a way that is simultaneously honest and truthful to my eye, but is also concerned with a respectful portrayal of the grace and dignity of those who sit for me. The balancing act between academic ideals as a painter, an emotional exploration of the essence of my subjects, and the desire to often include contemporary motifs has defined the work to this point.
As the paintings have reached a wider audience, I’ve realised how crucial it is to do my best to capture the beauty, strength, courage and stoicism I’ve found in the women I’ve been fortunate enough to work with. It’s been a process of discovery, through my models, of metaphors for deeper spiritual truths that pertain to the human condition, and I’m so grateful that the work has been so well-received.
What informs the selection of your models. Do you randomly select them or are they well known to you?
Well as mentioned, in the beginning – and I think this may be familiar to most figurative artists – the models were strictly friends. After a while my casting of models expanded out to where I might ask someone I just met who I got to know a little and found to have a compelling vibe. Once in a while I may have approached someone who had a particularly striking look or energy and asked her to pose. Which was a good experience as it forced me out of introvert mode.
Now I’m often approached by people who are keen to be a part of the work, which is humbling. I get emails and direct messages from such a wide range of amazing people – there’s definitely a long list of people I want to paint. Sometimes it takes me 2 or 3 years to get to actually create the painting someone posed for, so it can be a time lag, which gives me some anxiety but if the impulse is still there I know it was meant to be.
Regardless, in terms of choosing my models I always trust my gut instincts – I still count so many of my past models as friends, often close ones. It’s an interesting way to get to learn about someone, by painting her. It creates a psychological rapport.
Why is it important for you to situate them in urban settings?
I think there was a point in time where I was simply influenced by my environment, living in Brooklyn, and most of the models I painted also lived in the same environment. I wanted to show that direct connection to where we lived, where we worked and the creative energy that was sometimes in direct contrast, what could sometimes be seen as an oppressive setting. A lot of backgrounds in the paintings were simply walls or doorways in my neighbourhood or were motifs inspired by walking around Brooklyn. I liked to discover an aesthetic beauty in something that others may see as dilapidated and ugly.
Having said that I think I also looked for metaphors in the elements supporting the portraiture – I often thought of the history of man-made structures, the deliberateness of their functionality and design. This then being affected over time by a kind of organic build-up of mark-making, layering of posters, stickers, coats of paint. I thought a lot about a constant cycle of decay and renewal, natural patinas, and unintentionally poignant, symbolically dense signs of our occupation of this urban landscape.
The one thing that always remains constant for me though is the idea of people moving through these urban environments, their presence is temporary, their energies activate spaces, making them vibrant and alive. Sometimes there is a defiance in the presence of the figure, sometimes I feel the subject is a tourist of the visceral experience.
I think in recent years I’ve moved from more specific urban settings in favour of abstract representations of surroundings. Or supporting components such as typography, animals, or collaged pieces that provide symbolic or contextual information but not necessarily a setting. I’ve also been investigating emotions elicited by colour or mark making. There are more paintings that have backgrounds comprised of gestural brushwork or impasto mark-making with the palette knife lately.
Please describe your creative process.
My process is pretty direct. I usually don’t do preparatory sketches. Ironically the design of the painting is very important to me. But I start with the general idea for the composition, which is in my head, and then it’s plotted out on the canvas – either with graphite or charcoal. I’m always looking for a good balance of positive negative space, and definitely trying to be judicious in my cropping of the figure. I see so many compositions these days with random cropping that, to me, builds in points of tension that interrupt eye flow, or I get so stuck on that it completely undermines the composition.
There will be a blocking in stage with the figure, but depending on what elements I’m including, collage for example, I may have to get my collage down on the surface before I begin painting.
The middle stage is definitely where all the “heavy lifting’ takes place, sculpting and refining the figure, choosing which details to render and which bits of information to let go. There’s a lot of grinding at this stage.
Often I’ll push the figure almost to completion then enter an editing mode, where I’m eliminating aspects of the build that don’t’ serve the final image, or making bigger moves with the background, unifying with colour or adding elements to balance and further fine-tune the composition.
The backbone of my work is oil paint, but I’m also open to using whatever media a particular idea requires, be it oil stick, charcoal, graphite, paper collage, stencils or aerosol paint. I’ve recently experimented with encaustic wax, pumice stone, shredded car tire, crystals, and various interesting acrylic media. I’m at my best when I’m having fun – sometimes that means conquering my fears of operating outside my comfort zone.
In the end I hope to strike a balance between fully realised passages of information, a feeling of ‘realness’ with the figure or figures, a psychological presence and a strong connection with supporting elements. And of course allowing some parts of the painting to be more organic, and just letting the nature of oil paint dictate its expression. There’s always room for a little chemistry experiment somewhere along the way. I like being surprised and I’m a big believer that “happy accidents” are a result of a force outside of self, they want to manifest, and part of my job is to recognise those moments and let them be. I think it would be quite boring to have every square inch of a painting mapped out, I need some spontaneity.
What does your success mean to the Black community all over the world?
Well, I’m very fortunate to have received some incredibly positive feedback so far. I can’t necessarily speak to how the work has been received on that scale because, in many ways, I feel I’m still an emerging artist. Though I’ve been painting since I was 10 years old, technically I got a late start in the art world – I had a big detour into music and commercial art and advertising. So I’m still evolving, and trying to create more mature work which hopefully will have the integrity and quality to pique the interest of a larger audience
But I’m happy that the imagery, the intent of the work has connected the way it has to this point. I’m so completely touched and inspired when someone takes the time to write a message telling me how a particular painting has affected them in a positive way. Especially the work that deals with self-love and a positive self-image, and it is touching to have someone coming from outside the Black community express a sincere respect and appreciation for diverse ideals of beauty that haven’t always been accepted the way they deserved to be, let alone celebrated.
It’s so unexpected to have someone tell me in a heartfelt way how a painting I’ve made has elevated their spirit, it’s brought me to tears more than once, especially when I’ve sometimes been stuck in a gray zone of self-doubt and worry. So many times I’ve received a crucial message at exactly the right time to break me out of that rut.
I’m not oblivious to the fact that I have my critics – I know there are those who don’t “approve” of what I do, and they’ve let it be known in one form or another – but I stay focused on the words of people who support my work wholeheartedly. It’s so uplifting to know there is confirmation my gut instincts led me on the right path – the obstacles will be overcome – in the end there’s only gratitude for those who embrace the work. It fortifies my resolve to hear positive feedback from those that understand the underlying message of all of this effort – one of unconditional love.
Alongside an active studio practice, you are also involved in making music. Kindly tell us a bit about this preoccupation, and how it relates to your work.
I think there was always a crossover with art and music for me. They are connected on so many levels. I started playing in bands when I was in high school, as well as deejayed parties and a few radio shows in college. I had the only hip hop radio show in Calgary at one point. One of my favourite guests on the show was Will Smith who was on tour with DJ Jazzy Jeff and was just about to debut in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. So my immersion in the explosion of hip hop in the late 80’s and early 90’s was pretty deep. I was playing records that spoke to themes that moved me, and when it came time to get into the studio, I was drawn to making portraits of my musical heroes, which happened to be a lot of young new hip hop stars.
I remember working hard on a painting of MC Lyte that someone ended up stealing. I guess that’s a compliment, I mean hopefully they wanted it for the portrait and not just the canvas. I also did a re-imagining of the NWA album cover for my graphic design class. We got to play a sample from whatever album we were working with, so that was pretty cool.
I played rock music in bands though, I was a singer. I liked the idea of switching back and forth between the two genres that I was most in love with at the time – rock and hip hop. When Run DMC collaborated with Aerosmith on Walk This Way, it also made me start thinking about how I could combine different genres on the visual art side. That’s maybe when I first started experimenting with combining a more or less traditional, realist approach to the figure with graffiti, which was the visual component of hip hop.
I’m just starting to get back to making music again – I just bought a bass guitar – and I’m realising what an important balance it helps maintain in my life. I love the spontaneity of making music, being in the moment, in the emotion, as a counterpoint to the more methodical process of creating paintings.
How do you think your dual Japanese and Canadian backgrounds, as well as living and working in the United States have influenced your work and to what extent?
Being from Canada, I’m sure my outlook on the world was different than if I’d grown up in America. The socio-political perspective overall was less contentious and there is probably a larger middle class and not quite as much of a disparity between the rich and poor. It seemed like everyone was pretty much on equal ground in terms of opportunity.
But it was a primarily Caucasian environment I grew up in – I think being half-Japanese made me stand out, and I found that the circle of close friends I formed were also ‘different’ – they were from Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica, and Pakistan. I can’t say that racial issues didn’t exist – myself at times, and particularly my friends on a regular basis were targeted especially when we were younger. There is a different demographic and history in Canada but there was still an experience of the ugliness of racism and bigotry that I think was an important factor in a deep sense of empathy I formed.
Of course, my family history has played a large role in shaping my journey in terms of how I relate to people and what kind of art I’ve chosen to make. Both of my parents and their families were deeply affected by World War II. My father’s family was a part of the Japanese internment programme that was implemented in the United States and Canada – after Pearl Harbor, they were ordered to leave their homes on the west coast, their land, and belongings then report to a train station to be sent to what was essentially a prison camp. Everything they had worked so hard for was taken by the government. Eventually, they were “re-assigned” to a bare-bones plot of land and had to start over, with nothing but their own motivation to rebuild their lives.
My mother’s father was a veteran of the war whose best friend was killed in a Japanese air raid, so for him, the Japanese were the enemy. When my mother and father started dating they alienated both of their families. Their wedding was boycotted, and only their siblings and cousins attended. I’m always inspired by how much adversity they faced in fighting for their love.
So there are many layers to my experience that I brought with me when I moved to New York in 1991 that definitely informed my choice of subject matter. I grew drawing and painting my friends, so in terms of representing people of colour in my work, there really wasn’t a sudden shift at all, just a more focused exploration of stories that were more New York-based or American.
Is there any current or upcoming project you’d like to share with us?
I’ve got several big projects in the works – some have been cooking for a few years now, but this an important year for a lot of things coming together. One of the projects I’m so excited about that has been a long time coming is about a fictional female samurai gang that rises up to fight for social justice and equality. The series is going to be called ‘Girl-illa War-Fair’. I’ll be in Japan later this year to do research for it. I’m looking forward to opening up a new direction in my work – I think it’s an important step for me.
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