Tim Okamura

Vue Weekly
September 29, 2016

Brooklyn’s iconic Gleason’s Gym has been home to many underdogs since it opened almost 80 years ago. It’s where a young Muhammed Ali – then Cassius Clay – trained for his iconic upset against Sonny Liston in 1964, and where local hero Jake Lamotta honed his skills as he rose through the ranks to become world champion, decades before Robert DeNiro would play him in Raging Bull. Painted on the wall of the gym, a quote by an ancient Roman poet which has become a test of resilience for all who pass through: “Now whoever has courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves and put up his hands.”

That’s the underlying theme in former amateur boxer and Gleason alumni Jeff Martini’s feature length documentary, HEAVYWEIGHTPAINT, opening the Edmonton International Film Festival on September 29th. The film follows the lives of Tim Okamura and his friends—Jerome Lagarrigue, Joseph Adolphe, and Taha Clayton—as they navigate the often unpredictable world of New York’s arts scene.

Martini met Edmonton-born figurative artist Okamura at a gym in the neighbourhood of Williamsburg. What started as a discussion for a short feature on Okamura would later turn into a much larger project, following the four artists over the course of five years.

“These artists, like boxers, train so hard to get to where they are,” says Martini, “but in the moment—in the fight—you have to let go, like these artists let go of the stroke and become one with the moment. Then they stop and [assess] what they’ve done—like a boxer stops in between rounds—then go back to reacting and creating.”

For Okamura, surviving 25 years in New York—the last few years as a full-time artist—has not been easy.

“The one constant that you’re always going to battle as a creative person is fear,” says Okamura, “and that fear is going to keep you in [a box].”

The voice of fear will tell you not to leave home, he says, reflecting on his experiences in leaving home.

“I’ve experienced some absolutely dreadful lows over 25 years of being [in New York],” he adds. “Moments that almost broke me—but it’s that cliché of: ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’”

He moved to New York in 1991, after graduating from the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary. Okamura was influenced by classic painters he’d long admired—seeing a Rembrandt for the first time while visiting The Met—but also by unknown street artists creating masterpieces on the sides of buildings. With the grit and pulse of the city reverberating on every corner, New York spoke to him in a very personal way.

“It really grabbed me,” he says. “It was just one of the few times in my life where I felt just completely taken over by a passion for something and that was the city. I just loved it and I knew I had to be here.”

Okamura’s work consists primarily of women of colour. That, combined with his mashup  of influences and finely-honed technical abilities has become as synonymous with New York as the inspirations that originally drew him there. While classic fine art has often neglected noble depictions of minority groups, for Okamura, it’s not so much about making a grand political statement as it is about his on-going search for beauty. It just also happened to become a source of light for an underrepresented community.

“I wasn’t seeing very many—if any—representations of people of colour. [Growing up] a lot of my friends and the people I surrounded myself with were mostly minorities—friends from Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica—that was my world,” he says. “For most artists that do figurative portraits, they usually end up painting their friends to start, so that’s how it started for me and it kind of branched out from there.”

The slow trajectory of his career has yielded some incredible experiences. In October 2015, Okamura was among 10 artists honoured at the White House for their contributions to social justice, with his painting, “The Promise,” selected to hang in the East Wing. But he understands that with growing exposure comes increased responsibility. While he’s a fighter, for him, it’s also about the worthwhile fight.

“I think that it’s important to continue to portray women of colour, people of colour, in a way that has a positive message as the backbone of the work. I love the balance of strength and beauty and that inner fire that you see in somebody’s eyes; that’s what I’m always after.”