Tim Okamura: Unites
By Ash Hoden
Other than the fact that it existed, neither of us knew a thing about the art scene in New York. But when my friend proposed that I write about the lives of the city’s artists, using Deviation as an analytical lens, it was time to get connected. He said that we should walk the streets of Manhattan, beginning downtown and working our way north, introducing ourselves at galleries, museums, boutiques, and any other arty and/or crafty establishment we came across. This march began in TriBeCa, extending east and north over the course of many days, steadily nearing Chelsea and what we would discover to be a mind-numbing onslaught. We had no clue about the magnitude of it all. Once we had covered Manhattan we would do likewise in Brooklyn and elsewhere, was the original idea. When we hit the Meatpacking District on the third day of our march, still enjoying each other’s company at that point, we encountered an open door in a converted warehouse. From the street we could see paintings hanging from a back wall, but it didn’t appear to be an open studio. It appeared to be a studio that just so happened to have a door that was open. My friend and I walked inside without thinking twice.
At first it looked empty — a studio with an open door and no people inside. Actually it was a gallery with a side room that served as a studio, and in that side room stood two women. They were roughly our age and they were waiting for the artist to arrive. My friend made a joke about it being a long wait, you know, waiting for an artist. Shortly thereafter Tim Okamura entered the room. Our method of getting connected, going street by street and knocking on doors, led us straight to a heavy hitter — both art-wise and connectivity-wise.
Tim uncorked a bottle of wine, poured glasses around, and invited us to tag one of his latest paintings. He was preparing to host an open studio at the Redbird Gallery — in which we stood — where he was doing a residency. There would be four paintings at the event that guests were free to tag. Two had black backgrounds and two had white backgrounds. In the center of each canvas was a portrait of an African-American woman. Tim invited my friend and I to attend this upcoming event, where we would learn that the crowd he attracts is an accomplishment as noteworthy as the work he creates. It’s a demographic melting pot, bringing together a diversity of age, class, culture, style, and skin tone. It’s not the Thursday night regulars that you’ll encounter at the weekly openings in Chelsea or the East Village. Tim unites.
A couple of months later I met with him once again at the Redbird Gallery. It was near the end of his residency and he was looking forward to getting some quiet time in his own studio in Bushwick. Across the street from the Whitney, his time as the artist in residence had been great for the social aspect of the profession — hosting events, showing work, meeting and talking with people like me — but it was harder for him to get the solitude that he needed to actually paint. In the middle of our conversation somebody pulled on the outside door, which was closed and locked, but it was an intrusion nonetheless.
We discuss the broad range of interests Tim had pursued prior to becoming established as a painter, and the value of having a variety of experiences to pull from.
“I wasn’t trying to come up with some sort of formula: ‘Ok, this is what’s hot right now. Let me do this so that I can become a success.’ It was never about that. I just always liked painting portraits and was always attracted to depicting people — kind of capturing their stories on canvas — which is sort of what it’s about when you paint a portrait. That’s the one thing that was consistent. But yeah, it was this roundabout journey. ‘Well, where is this going to go? What is this about? Who do I enjoy painting?’ I just tried to stick to that. I remember doing as a project in college a reimagining of the NWA album cover. It was the stuff that I was into. I was into hip hop, I was into rock, and that was a big influence on my art. Especially when I got to New York. I was really into doing portraits of people that I loved in hip hop. And then I remember thinking a little more about the social-political side of that. Rappers like Public Enemy started to infuse their music with this really strong political message. They were so influential. Even the style of production. I started thinking about some of those things when I was painting, and there was a big resurgence of the popularity of Malcolm X, as well. I remember reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X at that point in time. Everybody was wearing X hats. I was like, ‘I’m going to do a portrait of myself wearing an X hat. What does that mean if I wear that?’”
Tim was raised in Edmonton, Alberta in Northwest Canada, where it’s “cold and shitty for eight months of the year.” During his formative years the politics of race that exist in places like New York were not a part of his everyday life. His mind was absent of these race-based social constructs that so often have a limiting effect on one’s creative expression. It gave him the freedom to explore terrain he may have not otherwise felt free to explore. “[Being from Canada] allowed me to be a very fresh, clean-slate person arriving in New York and just capturing things that I thought were cool. Period. ‘Dude, you look cool. Your dreads are awesome. Let me try to paint you.’ Those are my motivations.”
That type of approach has proven very effective for doing work that brings together people with wildly different backgrounds. Go to one of his shows and see for yourself. It allows him to present people as people, not simply icons of racial politics. “Once in awhile I’ll do a painting that has a little more of a social-political feel to it, but I’ve never been into the idea of just making these super-overt pushes in that direction. I’m very dedicated to capturing that particular individual. It’s like doing justice and kind of celebrating the individual, but there’s also a nod towards this person as a metaphor for the greater human experience. You can read something in there emotionally and connect to a certain energy that they’re emitting. It connects to these greater ideas. ‘Wow, I feel empathy looking at this person.’ Or, ‘I feel the pain that she’s gone through.’ Or, ‘I feel her pride.’ Or, ‘I feel her strength, or her courage.’ Whatever it may be. They aren’t caricatures. They’re very much who that person is as an individual — celebrating that — but also finding a way where there can be a connection for everybody. That’s an interesting process because I’ve seen that happen, even in galleries. Where somebody might approach this painting, and be like, ‘Wow, I really have no connection with this person.’ Or, ‘I’ve never seen somebody with hair like that before.’ Just silly stuff like that. But they spend some time with it and then they walk away, ‘Wow. I just looked deeper and deeper into her eyes. Shit I do feel connected to that person.’ I think that’s interesting. It’s a byproduct of realism I think.”
Do you think that if you weren’t coming into this blank-slate you would have felt like you were crossing a boundary that you shouldn’t be crossing?
“I wasn’t really thinking that. And I still don’t. I mean I get it. Obviously the more that the work gets exposure the more you hear things and the more questions you get asked, and that type of thing. But at the end of the day, what’s your function as an artist? It’s to ask questions. Explore. It’s not to stay in some little comfort zone and make work that everybody approves of. It’s your job to paint what you’re interested in, regardless. To make work that you think is cool. And if it’s coming from a really pure place — it’s coming from your heart and you know that — it’s going to have integrity. People can question shit all they want. I know the work has integrity. I know where it’s coming from. I know the intentions are positive. I know that I do my best to do justice to the subjects that I choose. And at this point, despite some questions and pokes and prods here and there along the way, overall the feedback is incredible. People saying, ‘Yo, I cried when I saw this painting. I’ve never seen this girl as me. I’ve never seen myself in a painting before.’ That type of response. That’s what I focus on.”
“I mean, once in awhile the criticism sticks, right. You could have a hundred people saying, ‘Great, great, great,’ and then that one person gives you a little criticism and you chew on that for far too long sometimes. But I think I kind of get it now. I get where there’s going to be people looking at things through their own self-constructed lens. They’re going to see it a certain way. Regardless of what you say or what you do, they’re going to see it in this negative way. And, you know what, that’s their problem.”
And then they are going to try to impose it on you.
“They want to impose it on you but they can’t. Because that’s their issues and their problems and it’s not just going to be my work. It’s going to be the way they see the world. It’s going to be every interaction they have that day as well. And it’s unfortunate, and I feel kind of sorry for those folks in a way because it’s a heavy burden to wake up in the morning and put on those glasses and look at the world that way.”
Totally. That’s a really good point. I mentioned before, but the crowd that you get and the people that support you is really distinct.
“It’s a diverse crowd. It’s a crowd of people that know it’s just about love and positivity. They get that. I think it’s about attracting like-minded people. ‘This is the right vibe, the right frequency.’ I’m very grateful that that has come to fruition. All these people that I love — regardless of whatever they may look like or whatever their socio-economic status is, or whatever it may be, but really good-hearted people with positive intentions and mostly creative folks or creative thinkers and very lovely people — it’s really nice to get to the point where that’s what the work has attracted, that’s what I’ve attracted.”
I think that’s a huge accomplishment. There’s so much that’s part of the art world that’s not about art.
And when you pull the people in who are genuine, it’s an accomplishment.
“And them choosing to be a friend of mine — they feel that I’m genuine as well. And that’s great. That’s the highest compliment.”
Although he’s tall and stout, with the build of an athlete, music and art have been at the center of Tim’s life from the earliest days. Rather than skiing or playing hockey, creativity helped him to survive the Alberta winters. It was his way of integrating the weather into his way of being. Whenever he complained to his mom of being bored she was quick to suggest that he draw. “Luckily I took to it as a means of entertaining myself. I was very much about doing very detail-oriented drawings. I would draw like a World War II battle scene, and try to draw all the soldiers and all the things that were happening in this battle. Or I would draw a demolition derby … all the cars and all the details of what was going on in these different types of cars. I just got so into detail, and that’s something that I’ve kind of stayed into. For me that’s what makes a big difference in the quality of something, even a film or a recording or whatever it may be.”
Were you looking at images and trying to replicate them, or were you also imagining the scenes?
“I was just imagining at that point. But now that I think about it, even books that my parents would read to me when I was younger and growing up, the ones that I liked the most were very detailed illustrations where you could really look at that picture time and time again. My parents could read me the same book twenty times and I would still enjoy it because of the illustrations being so detailed. That’s just occurring to me now, but for whatever reason I was attracted to that sensibility from an early age. I remember at one point my mom gave me a finger painting kit and I got into that as well. So I did spend a lot of time by myself making art when I was younger. And then a little bit later on it was about making music and being in bands. It was another indoor activity that we could do no matter what the weather was like outside. We could always have fun jamming.”
“I started off playing keyboards, even though I was never trained in keyboards. I had a couple friends that were putting together a band and there was already a guitar, there was already a bass, already drums, and they were like, ‘Well, we need keyboards.’ So I got one of those Moog synthesizers from the seventies, with a lightning bolt strap. And one of my friends was a pretty well-trained musician by the time he was like sixteen, seventeen-years-old. So he taught me a little bit of stuff.”
Did it come naturally for you?
“I think the idea of making music did. Keyboards were good for me in a way because it was very visual. I could look at the keys and remember patterns, basically. But ultimately I should have taken more lessons and should have pursued that. I think what I really enjoyed most was singing. Eventually I ended up becoming a singer in a couple different bands here in New York, which was a very unexpected twist. We didn’t get quite to the level that we had hoped to, just like every band I guess, but we toured around quite a bit. We opened for Sugar Ray a couple times, and we had a lot of good adventures. But I’m still into music. Now I’m trying to get back to it.”
What kind of sound?
“The first band was sort of a combination of punk rock, and Fugazi, and sort of emo kind of stuff, I guess. The second band the same. A little bit different sound. A little bit less punk in the second band. I was a singer in both bands… That was a great thing for me because I loved finding that balance, you know, being a Libra. I loved finding the balance between the longer term process-oriented mode of working in painting, building something over time. And then the spontaneity of music, where you are right there, right in that moment and able to release a lot of emotion that way. I think when I’m the most mentally healthy, I’m painting in the studio, I’m making these longer-term lasting things, and then I’m also balancing that by picking up a guitar and just singing and blasting and getting energy out that way.”
Also, painting and drawing is something you’re doing on your own. But with the band there’s the—
“The collaborative aspect. Yeah. You know what, that’s very true too. I love collaborating. I like doing my own thing, and the few times when I was working on painting projects… For films let’s say, when I was involved in a string of films back in the early-2000s, I liked coming in and working with other people. Because I was always in the studio by myself. I liked showing up and being, ‘Hey let’s make this thing happen.’ But then also getting out of there,” he laughs. “Getting back to my studio and not having to get caught up in the politics of working with people.”
Working in the film industry was something that came to Tim through circumstance. A friend and former bandmate opened a music venue in Williamsburg called North Six. Tim ended up bartending at the club in 2001, when 9/11 resulted in all of his commercial art projects being cancelled. While he was there he hung some of his paintings inside. Then the venue was featured in School of Rock and the film team wanted to keep Tim’s paintings up. Through this exposure writer and director Ben Younger found out about Tim and approached him about getting involved in his 2005 film called Prime. The main character was an aspiring painter and they used Tim’s paintings to represent the character’s work. “He even wore my clothes in the film. I was a bit of a model for who he was. At the beginning of the film they were showing him painting, but they really wanted to get a sense of somebody that knew what they were doing painting-wise.” Tim stood in for a scene. “They looked at [the actor’s] hands and my hands — it was before I had these tattoos. ‘You know what, he looks like a baby orangutan and you look like a gorilla. We’re going to have to shave your arms.’ So they called Klaus from the trailer. ‘Klaus, come, we need you to bring a razor.’ And literally, Klaus in the makeup department came and shaved my arms so it would look a lot more like [the actor’s] arms. It was a lot of fun.”
He could have taken the paintings and had a completely different concept for the painter, but he also referenced you. He liked you as a person, it seemed.
“I just think the vibes in general kind of clicked with him. It was at a time where some people knew the work but it wasn’t to the point where it is now. I think it was very plausible that it was this undiscovered young painter in the film.”
From Edmonton Tim went to Calgary for his undergraduate degree, but he was already setting his sights on New York. He was friends with a couple of older students that were planning to move to the city for a masters program in visual arts once they graduated. That got him thinking about doing likewise. Few others in Calgary were listening to hip hop at the time and NYC was its birthplace. That was part of the allure. Tim even hosted a hip hop show on the college radio station. “I had the only hip hop radio show in Calgary, so whenever there were acts coming through the city, they would come on my show. I interviewed Will Smith right before Fresh Prince of Bel Air was about to come out and he was on tour with DJ Jazzy Jeff. They were still riding high off their first record, Parents Just Don’t Understand — those kind of corny songs, but that’s what they were touring on. I’ve got to say, he was a young guy, he had a ton of charisma — jokes, super-positive, super-friendly — and I felt it. ‘This guy’s a star. I totally get it.’ Treated everybody with respect… I only have good things to say about Will Smith,” he concludes with a laugh.
Were you in art school?
“Alberta College of Art and Design. I was taking a little bit of everything. It was actually before we had computers in college so we were doing everything manually. In a way I wouldn’t trade anything for the education that I got. You know, having to hand draw typography. Shit like that was absolutely taxing, and just ridiculously brutal, but to actually have to go through that really, really tough, intensive kind of training and learn the basics of how a letter form is constructed… That shit’s still valuable to me because I’ve always been drawn to typographic stuff, or the use of words or the use of graffiti, or writing — how that can look and function in a painting. I’m still drawing on some of those graphic design sensibilities and some of that knowledge.”
T-squares and all of that?
“T-squares and drafting… Just this very comprehensive, solid platform of all these different skills. And at that time I really was more into illustration and commercial art applications. I wanted to do album covers or posters. I wasn’t really thinking, ‘Ok I’m going to be a painter that’s going to show work in galleries.’ It took me awhile to grow and understand and realize some of the limitations of commercial art. Because I did it. After I got out of grad school in New York I was doing commercial art for ten years. I was doing the cover of the Village Voice, I was doing book covers, I was doing everything I thought I wanted to do. Magazine illustrations, album covers, working for record labels, working for MTV, working for ad agencies, drawing storyboards to make money — all those kinds of things.”
“Yeah, all freelance projects. It was good because I had to get down and dirty and just meet deadlines. Pump stuff out sometimes. I didn’t really like being art directed. It just always felt compromised because you’re trying to make work for a commercial application. You’re trying to satisfy somebody else. ‘Hey, can you make this more green? Can you make her hair longer? Can you do this? Can you do that?’ You start to detach yourself emotionally, and as soon as you do that you can feel the importance of the work slipping away. Now you’re just trying to get it done to get a paycheck.”
It’s straight production.
“I think that was the thing for me that never quite clicked. It’s important for me to have an emotional connection to the work; for me to be almost obsessive-compulsive about making it the best thing that it can be.”
For it to have meaning.
“For it to have meaning for me and for it to be the highest quality of artwork that it can [be], I have to be fully invested emotionally. And the only way that I can be fully invested emotionally is if I’m making this piece for myself. First. And then it’s going to land where it’s going to land.”
In transitioning from the commercial side, did you have the sense that, ‘I’m going to make it this way and wherever it goes, that’s its own thing?’
“I was just trying to find moments to paint for myself. And it was that. It was a transition. I was playing music, I was doing storyboards for advertising agencies to make quick cash… You would stay up all night hitting these insane deadlines, taxing yourself to the maximum to get that stuff done. Advertising is a crazy crazy world. But I’m glad I had experience with advertising. I have so much insight from those experiences. Then I was doing painted illustrations for album covers, book covers… And I was trying to paint for myself. I was juggling a lot of things. I started teaching as well. I was teaching drawing and illustration at City College of New York up in Harlem. Then I started teaching at Parsons School of Design — drawing and painting. I taught one class and I was like, ‘I’ve got to get organized for next week.’ I was kind of flying by the seat of my pants. ‘Next week I’m going to have it all organized. I’m going to show them I’m a great teacher.’ And that day was 9/11.”
Immediately the commercial work died off and Tim had to find a fallback. “‘Wow, I’ve got this part-time teaching job and that’s not enough.’ But my friend had [North Six] and he said, ‘Why don’t you come bartend.’ Then some of my students would come to the club. I’d be bartending and serving my students drinks. It was the weirdest dynamic. ‘Oh my god, this is a nightmare.’”
How about the financial stuff in 2008? Did that hit you as well?
“Luckily I had a really good base of support in Canada. I had people in Canada buying a lot of work in 2007, 2008, 2009. That’s when the painting was starting to ramp up. I think after I did the film in 2005. I got a lot of press for being part of it. I leveraged it into some exhibitions and sales. I think 2007 was my first legitimate solo show. It was in Canada and I don’t know how it happened or why it happened, but the show was sold out before it even opened. That was awesome. I mean, great feeling. I was like, ‘This is how it’s gonna be! Every show that I do is going to be sold out before it opens!’ After that it was a huge roller coaster. Some shows were great and some shows were disappointing. But that was a turning point — after I had done a bunch of the film stuff. I worked on about seven different features, and some TV shows as well. You know, you work with a bunch of people on one film and then they branch out and work on other projects and keep pulling you in, just because they had a good experience working with you. I think that’s a big part of it. In that industry, or in any industry — and in New York — there’s tons of talented people but if you’ve got five guys to choose from and three are assholes, one guy is ok, and one guy you find to be easy to work with and friendly, which I try to be… We could all be equally talented, or maybe one of those guys is even more talented, but if you’re a pain in the ass to work with…”
When did you start painting then? When you were growing up it was drawing, no?
“When I was about seven or eight my dad put me into an art class with a whole bunch of adults. I started working with chalk pastels. Then I started oil painting when I was about nine. I think there was one other kid and he ended up quitting. I was a bit shy or something at that age, and my dad was going to class with me — he was painting too. Then my dad was like, ‘I’m too busy. I can’t do this class anymore. Do you want to keep going by yourself?’ I was painting at nine, ten, eleven and then I took a couple years off because I didn’t want to go by myself. I came back to painting when I was fourteen or something like that. I can’t say that I was painting painting painting. I was doing it a little bit, still drawing and still trying to find my way, obviously. But in high school I had an art class that was every morning, five days a week. From whatever time in the morning until lunch, and then I’d do my academic classes in the afternoon. It was a special program.”
There’s so much value in that.
“Yeah! And then the guys that I met… I was in the class with a couple other artist friends. One in particular that I had been friends with from junior high, he’s a really well respected artist now in Canada. He always inspired me to push and get better too. ‘Oh, shit, I gotta keep up to Sean Caulfield.’”
When you came to New York you came here for a masters program. Do you think it was valuable too?
“I think it was. It got me to one of the art capitals of the world. It’s been a crazy crazy journey. In some ways I feel like I’m just starting to come into my own a little bit. I get it a little more, in terms of what I need to do to be successful; what the game side of the industry is about. It’s taken a long time. Guys that I’ve met now, when they were fourteen-years-old they were like, ‘I want to be the next Basquiat. I want to be the next Jeff Koons.’ Or whatever it may be. ‘Wow, you were that focused when you were fourteen, fifteen?’ I knew that I wanted to do art and I was on that track. I was doing it because I was decent at it and it wasn’t hard for me — or it didn’t stress me out. I enjoyed it. But I wasn’t necessarily that laser-focused. Then these guys ended up blowing up and being huge by the time they were thirty. Whereas I was still trying to figure out, ‘Ok, do I want to make punk rock music? Do I want to do this? Do I want to do that?’ I had a bunch of different creative options at my disposal but I wasn’t so laser-focused. I was letting it come to me in a way.”
What about wife and kids? Have any interest in that?
“I don’t know man. There’s been a few close calls but I do think that I sacrificed that a little bit. Not intentionally, but the idea was always there [that] painting comes first, the work comes first, everything comes first. I think that affected some relationships, and it’s not easy to find somebody that is willing to say, ‘Ok, I get it. I’m always going to be second fiddle in a way.’ If I had to make a choice, it’s a tough question, but I can’t choose a woman over my art, you know what I mean; take a nine-to-five job and give up painting because that’s what she wants. That kind of thing. She has to know that I’m a painter. I chose this path, or this path chose me. You have to get that and sort of be able to understand. It takes somebody who is super-patient. And I also have to find the patience for that person too, which has not always been there. But, yeah, I still think that it’ll happen.”
When you’re in a field where you don’t know what you’re going to have coming in next year, or next week, it’s hard to sign a whole bunch of people up on that train.
“It’s a tough sell. It’s a tough sell. There’ve been stretches of time where I’ve been completely broke. And it’s like, ‘Will you have my back?’ Or during the successful times: ‘A bunch of money is coming in but I can’t guarantee that this is going to continue. Will you be with me through thick and thin?’ Because, when the money’s coming in, you’re feeling good, you’re going out for dinners, you’re throwing parties, all this kind of stuff — that’s not a hard sell. ‘Wow, look at this guy. This is going to be a fun life for us.’ But it’s like, ‘Yo, that might change six months from now. Are you still down? Are you down to be the one that ends up having to pay rent this month?’”
If I had been married I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the things that I’ve done because I would have been tied to other stuff. There’s no way I would have had the flexibility to be broke for awhile.
“I think if you find that right person they complement what you’re trying to do and they support it and they’re not a hindrance to it. But I think regardless, as soon as you get to kid territory, it’s like, geez, a child needs your time. I don’t know. I still feel like I’d like it to happen. I haven’t ever really forced it, obviously, but it would be a nice component to have in my life. I’d still like to be married and experience what it is to be a father.”
Any words of wisdom?
“For me it’s never been about lacking ideas, or lacking enthusiasm, or even energy to paint. Of course there’s some down days, like little stretches of time where you get a little salty and whatever. I’ve kind of had to overcome that. But I think the biggest challenge is — no matter how you’re feeling, no matter what’s going on — that you maintain consistency. Show up for work every day, regardless, and that’s tough to do some days. Some days it’s easy. That’s the thing that I’ve been struggling with the most over this crazy career, is consistency. But then you also have to honor things that are just in your nature. I am the kind of guy that sometimes needs to take a month off to just socialize and think and come up with ideas, and then buckle down again. I’m not really designed to be like, ‘I show up at 9 a.m. every day and work to 9 p.m. and just crank for twelve hours.’ I’m just not that guy. But I do try to be here everyday and that’s my big thing, is that pursuit of consistency. I’m never lacking for inspiration or ideas. I got tons of those stacked up. Which is good.”
That it is.
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