Tim Okamura: natural hair in art

Currently on display at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery from March 12, 2016 through Jan. 8, 2017.  Click the picture to see the exhibition online!

Currently on display at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery from March 12, 2016 through Jan. 8, 2017.  Click the picture to see the exhibition online!

I have been wanting to do this interview for a while.  Ever since we saw a print of his hanging in a gallery in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.  I immediately needed to know who was responsible for such a lovely piece.  His name is Tim Okamura.  We reached out to Tim and he graciously allowed us to enter into his gallery and his amazing world of urban artistry.

Tim met us at his gallery in the Meet Packing District of New York City.  He was very down-to-earth and welcoming, apologizing for being a few minutes late.  His love of New York City, its people, its beautiful women, the essence of the city are all around this space.  You also sense his pride in being half Japanese, as there are Asian influences, artwork, mementos all around the room.  I am instantly struck by how incredibly generous he is with his time and his vision.  As he begins showing me some of his pieces, he describes each detail.  Nothing on his canvass is incidental or purely for aesthetic value.  Every flower, graffiti tag, smile, frown, curl or insect has a specific meaning.  His subjects are friends, neighbors, acquaintances and sometimes ex-girlfriends.  These women all have stories to tell and he does a remarkable job at capturing their personalities and spirit, especially as seen through their eyes.  As you look through his work, take note of the butterflies and moths, representing, not only a metamorphosis of the the physical, but also rising above negativity and/or extremely difficult circumstances.  Find some of the tags on the wall in his pieces, hovering discreetly over each subject's head, crowing them as a queen.  In the details is where you will see how special Tim's work is.  Not only does he brilliantly capture the beauty of textured hair, he captures its uniqueness, its essence, its versatility.  Tim expertly paints the resilient spirit in women of color, along with revealing their truth, sisterhood and beauty.  Do yourself a favor after you've watched his interview (that merely scratches the surface) visit: TimOkamura.com and take an inspiring journey through this man's remarkable work.  You will be so glad you did! 

On growing up different:

"I grew up in Canada.  Half Japanese, half British origins, I grew up in North West Canada where there weren't a whole lot of half Asian guys so I was a little bit different.  I think that's just part of what influenced my view of the world.  I ended up becoming friends with other kids that were considered different."

On how having friends of color influenced his work:

"Growing up, my friends were from Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana, you name it.  We all just banded together because we were the: check off the "other" box.  So for me to choose subjects that were people of color was a natural thing."  

On choosing to paint women of color:

"I wanted to find subjects that hadn't been represented very much previously in the history of portrait painting.  I hadn't seen a whole lot of strongly painted realist representations of women of color.  I became attracted to that subject and to telling those stories and really trying to capture the beauty and positivity of those women that I met and befriended...and in some cases dated!"

On painting Afros: 

"There's a strength there...I've always loved Afros for that reason...how incredibly powerful just to see a person with a big Afro, how compelling and what a beautiful way to frame the face...and what it represents to mainstream America saying: "you know what, I don't need to straighten my hair.  I don't need to conform to YOUR ideals of beauty.  This is me.  If I let my hair grow, this is it.  Boom!  That's a lot about what (the painting) "I Love My Hair" was about."

On painting different hair textures:

"My goal as an artist when getting into representing the person, is trying to capture the truth...one of the gifts of this journey for me is, I'm really starting to figure out what composes this particular hair style.  How to paint the texture of somebody with dreadlocks.  There was nobody to show me that.  It's been a journey of discovery for me and I hope that I can do it justice."

On painting Head Wraps:

"As much as I love painting Natural hair and Afros, I'm also, lately, very interested in wraps...I'm also seeing some people that are doing tremendously well introducing head wraps, designing and doing beautiful, beautiful things with wraps so I've been interested in that too."

On his goals to inspire:

"I want it to be open to interpretation.  I know my intentions are positive and I try to do paintings that I think are good ideas.  It's not always going to land where I expected it to, it's not always going to land with the audience that I thought it might.  You have to do the work to the best of your ability, execute the best that you can and it's important my intentions are authentic and genuine.  And then you have to let it out into the world and it's going to live on its own.  I can only control so much and do the best work that I can with what I've got to work with."

Tim Okamura’s art is on display in permanent collections at these locations: The Davis Museum at Wellesley College, The Alberta Foundation for the Arts, the Toronto Congress Center, the Hotel Arts in Calgary, Canada, and Standard Chartered Bank in London, England.

Celebrity collectors include Uma Thurman, musicians John Mellencamp, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (The Roots), director Ben Younger, as well as actors Bryan Greenberg, Vanessa Marcil, Annabella Sciorra, and Ethan Hawke.