A Conversation with Tim Okamura

Tim Okamura finds his niche in urban areas thick with cultural blending. A Canadian native who moved to New York in his twenties, Okamura developed a particular style of realistic portraiture. The wide range of personalities and emotions inherent to large cities is startlingly evident in his oil and mixed media paintings. His art will be featured in “Round Zero,” hosted by the Art Director’s Club, on May 15. A portion of the show’s proceeds are donated to the Brotherhood/Sister Sol social organization.

AS: What influenced your move from Canada to New York?

TO: When I was in college in [the Alberta College of Art and Design in] Calgary, I really got into hip hop. There was a really strong interest in checking out the place where it originated from. I went on a couple of school trips where I would come to the city. It’s a place where the energy feels right and my connection made was just a unique experience. It’s so vibrant and there’s so much going on. The music, and just as important, the arts.

AS: What were the biggest cultural shocks when you moved there?

TO: Every day and every week, there was a new experience: Being shown a completely new world, seeing real graffiti. It was kind of a new phenomenon. That was a pleasant shock. On the flip side, there were negatives. A few days after I arrived, there was a Crown Heights riot. I had never been exposed; I had never known about those tensions.

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AS: What drew you to street art after arriving in New York?

TO: There was no money to be made doing graffiti. It was just a form of self expression that was really pure and really raw. It left an energy that I just fed off of.

AS: Did you always want to go into the arts? TO: It was really just being naive. I always enjoyed doing art, to a large extent. I always felt it was the thing I was the best at. Being younger, when you get positive feedback, you tend to stick with it. It makes you feel like you have some talent in that area. I always stayed on that track. I was very idealistic about thinking it could get me somewhere. It’s been a long, really difficult road.

AS: What was your biggest wake-up call after graduating college?

TO: How am I gonna survive? How am I gonna buy food while doing something art-related? I started thinking, “You need a short-term, medium-term, and long-term plan.” The short term was get whatever gig you can. Entering that world of advertising, things got real very fast. I had always worked hard, but I had never worked that hard. You have to be careful that you don’t lose track of your initial goal. Painting was a long-term goal. I liked the idea of doing book covers, album covers. That wasn’t easy to get into, either. I was a bartender. I was a waiter. I worked in advertising.

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AS: What was your weirdest odd job?

TO: I was working for a catering company, and one particular job was that we did a banquet for a big Italian family. Part of it was the waiters had to dress up in traditional Italian costumes that made us look like jesters. That was probably the most embarrassing thing I had to do.

AS: What’s the most bizarre measure you’ve taken for the sake of your art career?

TO: There was someone I passed on the street. I looked at her face and took a mental snapshot of it. I thought, “I gotta paint her.” I kept walking and thinking about her for three blocks. I walked for about seven blocks, and turned around to find her. When I finally did, I was out of breath from running and she was talking to someone on her phone. She was kind enough to look up from her call so I could ask her. Sometimes you have to go out on a limb.

AS: Did she say yes?

TO: Yeah. She modeled for two paintings, “Work Shirts” and “Little Sister.”

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AS: Where do you find the inspiration to create the narratives in your paintings?

TO: If you’re going to make the sacrifices to be an artist and to make work, that work has to be something that you’re passionate about and you’re connected to. For me, it was really about trying to balance all these different things that I really loved. I loved Rembrandt and Caravaggio. I loved graffiti. I loved hip hop. I loved rock. I’m going to synthesize all these things that influenced me and I’m going to come up with an expression of that on canvas.

AS: What’s your creative process when choosing and painting your models?

TO: All my models are friends of friends. Lately, they’re people that I meet and ask if they’re interested. It’s on a volunteer basis. They bring a certain look and vibe that I didn’t expect. It helps to have a relationship with the model. You see something in them and you feel a connection. There has to be a connection. If I don’t know them very well, it’s a matter of saying, “Check out the work.” If they’re into it, I’ll arrange for them to come to my studio. I spend some time getting to know them, and I’ll take a couple of different poses.

AS: Has a model ever changed your initial expectation of how a painting will come out?

TO: In everything I’m doing, I’m always leaving some room there for a bit of surprise and a bit of a change. Whether it’s coming from the model or even just the colors that are coming from the painting that I didn’t expect, or the emotional temperature of the piece. That’s what makes the painting exciting. I like there to be room for things to change and for things to take on a life of their own.

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AS: Do you have any advice for young artists?

TO: It sounds kind of cliche, but I would really advise somebody that it is a hard road, and there are so many things that you encounter that you make a career out of. You have to focus on that long-term goal. That thing in the distance, just keep running after it. That’s the drive and determination. You just never stop learning. The further that I go, the more I have to learn and the more I continue to find out every week. Every revelation, you are always learning, and you always try to improve.

AS: What is the most recent thing that you’ve learned?

TO: The thing I’m really grappling with right now is production. Making enough work and making it in a timely fashion with the same level of quality. I’m learning how to balance the production and making it work and still wanting to experiment.

AS: What’s the next big thing for you?

TO: Right now, as far as it is going, I sort of literally try to expand markets. I’d like to get something more solidly established in Europe. It’s about continuing to build my platform. It’s a big job. It comes slowly, but the key is to have those things written out as goals. The pieces eventually fall in place when you get there. Now, it’s solidifying the network of galleries. I’m looking for ways to also give more now that I’m starting to turn a corner. I’m looking for opportunities to get involved. I want to give back to the community. I want to get kids into art, even if it’s not as a career. It can be such a positive outlet. It really becomes a really important element in your experience. Hopefully I can do more of that type of thing.

You can find Tim Okamura’s work at timokamura.com

Adriana is a University of Maryland student majoring in journalism. She enjoys a good paperback, black coffee, and a full night's sleep (although she rarely scores a three out of three). Like most 20-somethings, she navigates through life's unpredictable weather and tries to see the sunny side of things. She has a passion for storytelling, and hopes to make a career out of finding unconventional ways to tell narratives.