Tim Okamura identifies as a painter, but rarely refers to himself as an “artist,” as he says the word carries connotations of pretension, and pretentious is one thing he strives never to be.
Okamura grew up feeling an outsider, due in part, he thinks, to his mixed ethnic background — half Japanese, half English. The painter speaks fondly of the “band of misfits, outcasts and weirdos” he considered friends growing up in Edmonton. Although they shared his drive and ambition, the group was never quite accepted by its peers. He has carried this sense of being on the outside looking in throughout his career and he says it is what allows him to connect with the subjects in his striking, realistic portraits.
“I’ve always been a bit of a square peg in a round hole. I’m attracted to uncharted territory, the path less travelled … Artistically I think that I never quite fit peoples expectations of what I should be doing creatively or what I should look like.”
Okamura attended the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary before transplanting himself to New York in 1991. He has achieved tremendous success for his portraits, particularly of minority subjects in urban settings that explore complex issues of culture and environment.
Okamura is incredibly knowledgeable and articulate, a natural communicator who seems to choose his words carefully, laughs easily, and speaks reverentially of the subjects of his portraits, most of whom he says he is happy to count among his friends. In particular, he has achieved renown for his portraits of the women of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.
“I think there’s been a lot of positive feedback in regard to my portraits of minority subjects and particularly those of African American women,” he reflects, “because that segment of the audience has not seen a lot of empowering portraits of people that they essentially recognize, whether they know the person or not. I always hope portrayal comes across as dignified, respectful, empowering and relatable in a positive way.”
Having spent, as of this month, half of his life in New York existing within its hyper-competitive art scene, he speaks of the unique challenges of living in an environment he says, demands a combination of talent, luck, and superb networking skills to allow artists to even tread water financially.
“There is a real social/political kind of influence in decision making, even more so a gigantic economic influence; an evaluation of what can be commoditized as far as both the art and the artist as a package. A lot of people are very good at making connections and shaking the right hands and meeting the right people and end up advancing very far.”
Okamura is careful to note that he doesn’t mean to sound bitter, and that he gives credit where credit is due. However, he expresses frustration at seeing artists whose talent is completely directed into their work as opposed to building a marketable image who are ultimately neglected.
“The optimist in me says the cream always rises to the top and maybe it’s just a longer journey for those people. I hope that the people who are making the most compelling and most quality work end up getting their due.”
The Canadian expat describes what he perceives as a lack of publicly funded art projects in America, citing this as a major difference between his birthplace and his chosen home.
“I still feel like there is [in Canada] overall a little more consciousness and maybe more community decisions in terms of what people are going to experience artistically.”
He chuckles dryly when asked whether he believes finding his footing in the fiercely commercialized scene of New York has affected his work. While he admits that at certain junctures in his career he has felt pressure to conform, Tim is quick to acknowledge that he is fortunate to have had a steady demand for his portraits the past several years and that his largest concern is keeping up with that, not necessarily shifting his vision.
“I know a lot of painters who now have a workshop full of assistants who are painting their paintings entirely, and the artists aren’t even touching them because of the demands of deadlines, and the aspirations to be everywhere at once. You end up having these artists who just end up signing the paintings,” Okamura says.
“I still think it’s important to make some organic decisions. I think my hand is very important to the work; I’m a very tactile kind of painter and I think that I cannot have assistants to translate that aspect or that vision onto canvas in a way that would be true to the work. So I’m kind of negotiating between the commercial demand and still staying true to myself and true to the vision and that’s not always the most comfortable place to be.”