A Mixed Media Approach: Tim Okamura Interview

Tim Okamura is an internationally acclaimed painter whose work thoroughly supports and celebrates the diversity of the city he calls home, New York. Politically aware, and involved, Tim makes it a constant effort to create work that is a powerful commentary on current social affairs. He is known for his compelling portraiture, which uses mixed media in a creative and refreshing way. Tim was kind enough to elaborate on his heartfelt philosophies for Issue 019 of Beautiful Bizarre Magazine.

Tim Okamura

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Can you remember the first time you felt the urge to be artistic? How did your upbringing hinder or uplift your natural instincts to create?

I grew up in Edmonton, Canada, where the winters were long and cold and if you weren’t outside playing in the snow, there wasn’t really a whole lot to do. I was probably about 5 or 6 years old and I definitely remember telling my Mother “I’m bored!” and she kept encouraging me to draw, and later to paint – my parents gave me finger paints, which led to my first attempts at mixing color as I recall – and luckily for them I enjoyed it and was able to keep myself occupied and out of their hair for hours on end.

I would draw pretty complicated World War 2 battle scenes out of my head, with all the soldiers from both sides of whatever conflict I imagined. Or demolition derby scenes with wrecked cars with broken glass and flat tires – I was really into detail, and I think that’s one thing that’s continued through my life as artist: a love of detail.

At some point in second or third grade, my parents enrolled me in an art class that was almost all adults – there was one other kid besides me – and I started working with chalk pastels. One of the first drawings I did was of a Native American boy, in Canada we say First Nations, and I remember being proud of learning how to use gradient value for the first time to model light and shadow on the boy’s face. It was my first ‘volumetric’ drawing, and I was excited to keep going.

I graduated to using oil paints shortly thereafter. My Dad would go to the art classes with me – he was a talented artist, he never really pursued it beyond it being a hobby, but he encouraged me. He would paint landscapes, and I started painting animals. One of the first paintings I finished and signed was of a horse’s head, which my parents still have hanging in their house. I always had positive support from them when it came to making art.

Your tendency towards mixed media perfectly matches your urban approach to artwork. When did you first start to experiment with intermedia and why did you feel it was an important aspect to bring to your work?

I started experimenting with mixed media in college – I went to the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary – where I met a bunch of friends who were into keeping sketchbooks. We were initially into figure drawing from life, but started incorporating paint, collage, messing around with the photocopier, transparencies, etc., to augment our drawings. When we had time we would do something called a “sketch jam” where we would put on an album and start drawing in our sketchbook until the first song ended, then pass our sketchbooks to the person on the left and they would continue the drawing. When the next song ended, we’d pass the sketchbooks on again. By the time the album was done, you got your sketchbook back and things had usually gotten pretty nuts. We’d try to out-weird each other and add in all kinds of elements. Sometimes kind of disturbing to be honest, but a lot of discoveries were made.

So the mixed media thing definitely became an integral part of my approach to making images because I could “break the rules’ – there was this academic drawing foundation throughout what I was doing, but I was also searching for a way to push boundaries. I was big into music during this time as well – I had a couple of college radio shows, one was the only hip hop show in Calgary. I really fell in love with this new, exciting from of music, and it occurred to me later that I think there was a subconscious influence from the constructions of hip hop: in the same way deejays were sampling classic grooves and fusing them with new beats and rhymes, I was trying to take a classical approach to drawing and fuse it with mixed media and typography, which later included graffiti letter forms and stencils.

Moving forward, a mixed media approach gives me a lot of options in image-making, in communicating on several different levels in one image. I’m able to supplement a painted figure with text, collage, stencils, hidden words sometimes, that I think allows the viewer to continue to uncover new elements in a painting upon repeated viewing. I don’t always have to throw the kitchen sink into a piece but knowing I have that “tool box” gives me a lot of options I can draw upon depending on the needs of a particular painting.

From initial idea to finished product, what is your process like? What inspiration fuels your works and do you ever have artists block?

My initial ideas come in different forms. Sometimes it’s is as simple as seeing qualities in a person that make me feel compelled to paint them, and I’m not necessarily sure what other elements will come into play to support that portrait, whether it’s color, or more involved secondary information. So when I start a portrait of someone I don’t always know where it’s going. I like the organic aspect of that process, I like the discoveries that can occur while I’m painting a subject, I allow room for whatever needs to manifest to happen – “happy accidents” are pretty common in my work. It’s important to me to not fill in all the answers from the outset. I used to start with compositional sketches, and try to adhere to them, but I usually found that process too rigid for my liking. I generally don’t do physical sketches anymore, I like designing as I go.

But I also begin pieces in an opposite way if I have a specific idea for a narrative, or a phrase that I want to build a painting around I’ll start searching for the right model to fit that idea. Somebody with the right look can be key to communicating a particular message. And sometimes the message makes itself known simultaneously with the realization I need to paint a particular person. There can be that ‘”a-ha!’ moment.

There’s a lot of back and forth in my process, in terms of grappling with concept and spontaneous ecision-making; and between allowing the chemistry of paint to do it’s thing, and the slow grind of painting out details that I think are important to a particular piece.

I’m inspired by the beauty and complexity of human beings first and foremost, but also by music, graphic design, street art, ‘accidental art’ that comes with dilapidation – like the beauty of rust for examples – and just the surfaces that build up, especially in New York City as a result of so many people living on top of each other, all trying to have a voice – layers of stickers, wheat paste, graffiti – I love all of that stuff. I still love old master works and dig a lot of contemporary artists too. It’s a big mash up in my head, lots of inspiration to draw from.

I don’t ever feel like I have artist’s block. Fortunately it’s never been a problem. If anything, I usually have way too many ideas and sometimes I’m paralyzed by not knowing which paintings I want to make first. I’m not very methodical in that respect. I’ll jump from series to series, and like going back and re-visiting older ideas as well, hopefully bringing new insight to them. And sometimes I’ll start a painting and won’t get back to it for a few years – that happens a lot, perhaps because I didn’t have all the information I needed to complete the piece at that time.

Rather than a creative block, it can be the physical or emotional exhaustion that slows me down. My mind wants to keep making paintings, but sometimes my body, my hands… it’s like “we need a break dude.”

There are many topical subjects in the media right now, from the Femicide Machine in Mexico to the missing women in DC, that are proving the precarious situation for women of color globally. Many citizens are now turning to a people search in order to find their loved ones, whether it be a missing person from years ago or more recently, its still a matter that’s effects us all and for a long time too. Your work, for me, seems to shed a spotlight on women like this, and more, and their presence in society. What drew you to these subjects and can you explain to our readers why there is such an urgency behind these topics?

The initial impulse to focus on creating portraits of women of color was really just inspiration, plain and simple. I always thought saying “I was inspired” sounded like such a cliché artist thing to say, but that’s really what it was. I painted portraits of a diverse group of friends growing up in Canada, and after moving to New York in 1991, it was really a continuance of being drawn to depict people I had not seen painted very often, if ever, in the tradition of academic portrait painting. People who had really been under-represented in art history. I knew theirs were extremely compelling stories to be told – and I view portrait painting as a form of storytelling – so I wanted to try to do my best to capture my subjects in all of their beauty, power, and humanity. As soon as I began, I knew it would be a long artistic journey and had no idea where it would lead me, but felt like I was on the right path at a gut level. At that time I didn’t think about how it could evolve into a larger body of work that’s ended up defining a significant portion of my career so far. It was just me in my studio, with nobody seeing the work, determined to make portraits of women I thought were interesting and just really dope people. All the while I was trying to improve technically and conceptually as painter, and challenge myself to gain a deeper understanding of how to portray my subjects in an articulate and respectful way. It’s been almost three decades of hard work in that regard, so I’ve been doing this a lot longer than most people realize.

And when I started in earnest, I wasn’t really thinking about commercial applications for the work, or about finding a gallery, or selling paintings, or the circles I might find myself in… those things weren’t important to me – I was just trying to make good paintings. I think I had some idea about the work being relevant on a socially conscious level, sure, but had nowhere near the awareness of all the implications that I have now. Being young there was a certain amount of naiveté, which goes with the territory as an emerging artist. You also have to remember this was an era before widespread use of the internet, before smart phones, and pre-social media. In some ways there was more control of what information you took in, and how that shaped your outlook.

Now we have constant and instant access to news, it’s unavoidable, and unfortunately we are so often confronted with epic tragedy. The horror stories emanating from Mexico, Nigeria, and D.C. with women going missing; the conditions and unimaginable injustices that inspired the need for “Black Lives Matter” and other movements nationally and internationally; and the required urgency for messages pleading for change directed at government, at political leaders, and sadly, so many people who were taught to be biased, sexist, discriminatory, or xenophobic in this country. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. We are now desperate to wake people up from the destructive nightmare of racism and systematic prejudice, and institutionalized oppression they have been operating in, and nurtured their entire lives. We are seeing the catastrophic consequences of their actions – we have to put an end to it.

As an artist, I want to do my part to contribute to the crucial conversation for change that needs to occur. As angry and saddened as I get, I strive to be a positive voice in that dialogue. I think I’m still growing into my role as someone who puts messages of hope out there. As time has gone on, I’ve realized more and more how much of an influence we can have as artists and for someone like myself, making work that is inherently connected to social issues, there is a responsibility associated with that. Moving forward I think you’ll see more work that speaks directly to some of the difficult problems we must contend with.

Do you feel any pressure to portray yourself in a certain way due to your multi-racial background or gender? Artists, at times, also have pressure to be or act a certain way. How do you deal with that?

I really don’t think I feel a pressure to portray myself other than how I am. I care about making the best art I possibly can, and I care deeply about representing people in my work in the most genuine, connected, and positive way I can. I believe in myself, and I know my core instincts are authentic and my intentions are sincere. It has been a very organic journey; I really didn’t have specific expectations as to where I would land in the art world. I think that can be very difficult to control regardless, all you can really control is the work and if it’s quality, it will take you places you never imagined.

Perhaps I’m an anomaly – I was born in western Canada, to parents of Japanese and English decent. My friends were very diverse growing up – from Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica, India – we were that group of ‘others’ who didn’t quite fit in. I had some experiences with discrimination; however, a lot of my friends had it much worse than me. We tried to look out for each other and there were some tough moments, but to contrast that with some of the stories of racism my friends here in America have endured, I’m still grateful for my childhood there. I feel fortunate.

Regardless, my personal experiences, my background, my friendships helped form the person that I am today, and the artist that I’ve become. My sensibilities came about from unique circumstances, and the fact that I’ve now been in New York over 26 years – more than half my life – has also defined me and my work. I’m certainly not perfect and still evolving, but to try and occupy a space outside of myself wouldn’t feel right.

Do I get that there can be a disconnect for people who see the work and see the person responsible for it? Of course. And I’ve been confronted by people who are trying to understand how a guy who usually ‘shows up’ to their eyes as a Caucasian male living and working in America can possibly have the balls to paint people that don’t look like me. It’s interesting, to say the least, the implications that has had and the judgments that have come my way. Don’t get me wrong, it has been 95% positive, but it can be challenging for people with preconceived notions about who is allowed to paint who. Given in the history of this country I understand when it gets difficult to reconcile the work with the artist who made it. But it has forced me to really dig deep and answer for myself, first and foremost: are my creative impulses genuine? Are my motivations spurred by an authentic search for beauty? Does the path I’ve chosen feel right on a gut level? Most importantly, am I really striving to honor and elevate those who I choose to paint? The answer is yes on all counts.

I know the art world usually critiques the whole package – it’s not just the work, but what do you look like, what’s your story, where did you come from, where did you go to school… Does it pass muster? You can’t stop people from making those judgements. It’s the nature of the beast. But there’s never been anyone like me, and I don’t mean that to sound egoic, I just think my path is unique and not everyone will able to wrap their head around it. I know I will always be a square peg in a round hole, but I hope that contrast manifests itself in the best possible way. So all I can do is ground myself in being honest, doing the best work I possibly can in the moment, and to provide the most truthful answers I can. It’s a matter of integrity and I think that’s what carries you through.

You have collectors that are famous, have exhibited in galleries across the globe, and have even received accolades from Joe Biden. From most people’s’ perspective you’ve attained success. How do you define success? What advice do you have to those who are trying to be successful?

I feel like success is all relative –the higher you climb that ladder, the more rungs you see in front of you, and you continually end up re-setting your goals. I still know the work is in a growth mode, I know I have ability to keep growing as a painter, and every day I’m trying to continue expanding my ability to communicate more important messages to an even wider audience. I am an ambitious person, and I have definitely been very fortunate to this point, but I think it’s only been rare instances that I’ve been able to stop and appreciate a moment of success for what it was. Standing in the White House was one of those. A great moment of joy. But most often I’m thinking ahead to how can I improve, how can I continue evolving as an artist and a person.

For me success is finding a permanent sense of stability, being able to create the space for yourself to work without constantly having to worry about money, or time, or what your dealer might think of your new work. Have I reached that place yet? No, but I’m making a practice of appreciating the journey to that place more and more.

Another aspect of defining success for me is recognizing when people are experiencing a profound connection to the work – that is very rewarding, and it is an accomplishment that can very gratifying. Especially when the work is able to challenge perspectives and elicit emotions that lead to meaningful conversations. If I can play a part in motivating people to speak up for change, for instance, that is success.

I think there are so many pieces of advice that can come off as being cliché even though they are completely true. Things like committing to doing the hard work, maintaining a disciplined studio practice, doing research, always pushing to improve, never being satisfied and deciding that you’ve “got it all figured out”, etc. Those things are absolutely accurate and essential.

But one thing that has stuck with me through the years was something a very successful actor friend of mine told me, which I felt completely in alignment with: “I never had a plan B”. If your goal is be an artist, there can’t be anything else, there can be no Plan B. Everyone’s path is different, so I can’t necessarily say follow these exact directions and you’ll get there, and it will take as much time as it’s supposed to for any given individual, but I know if there is only a Plan A, and you commit to that 100%, you will be driven do the things necessary to achieve your goals, and the universe will provide you with all the support you need to get there. I truly believe that.

What is your relationship to religion and how does it translate to your artwork or your view of your subjects?

I consider myself a spiritual person without adhering to a particular organized religious practice. My father’s family is Buddhist and my mother’s is Christian, protestant. I think when I was younger I felt like ‘how do I choose one over the other”? As I got older, and did some studying of theology, mythology, and cultural belief systems in direct relationship to religion, I really took on an expanded worldview – thanks in large part to the work of Joseph Campbell – that focused on the similarity of all these archetypes, all of these mythologies. I became very interested in the fact that humans all over the world came up with very similar stories of creation, for instance – the major differences often simply being nomenclature – that really underscored the truth of Carl Jung’s assertions regarding collective unconscious. For me this pointed to the powerful forces guiding our behaviors and beliefs as a shared human experience – quite simply, we are one.

That is why I think it is important we delve into each other’s stories to gain deeper insight and understanding, to overcome prejudice, to improve lines of communication and to try to dissolve religious and social barriers that have caused so much strife in our existence. Our attitudes need to catch up with the progress we have made in technology. We are now able to access information from all over in the world in a split second, yet so many of our belief systems are antiquated, regionalized, and designed to prolong hostility, xenophobia, and racism. As an artist I paint people who may not look like me, who may have different cultural traditions, whose religious viewpoints may not be in sync with my own spirituality, but I choose to honor their individuality, to celebrate our diversity, and explore our connectedness to the greater human experience.

What is your opinion on race relations today? What do you think is the key to the next generation’s success in keeping peace between all cultures, races, and gender identities?

Obviously it can be very a difficult subject to confront, especially as it pertains to conditions in America. It’s harder for me to comment on situations in other countries currently without firsthand experience, so my thoughts are mostly connected to living in the U.S..

I try to maintain an optimistic outlook without sequestering myself in a bubble of idealism, but I do sincerely believe there has been progress, and I think the dialogue going on is urgent and profound. The election of Barrack Obama as President of this country was a huge milestone that really did inspire so much hope that real and lasting change had arrived. Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably, we are now experiencing the backlash, as determined by those who are intensely uncomfortable with change, in the form of the current administration. It has been a shocking and demoralizing turn of events in the story of this country but I try to stay focused on the significant silver lining – that it has awakened so many, that it has brought to the surface, in dramatic fashion, so many issues that were either temporarily ignored, glossed over, or swept under the rug for a period of time.

I’ve explained to friends outside of this country that there is a social revolution going on, that people are indeed speaking up for transformation, protesting, making their voices heard, and actually taking action. I believe social media and technology have helped play a huge part in that, in getting messages out, in rallying people to stand up for change. Not only are we shining a light on injustice and the criminal acts of bigots and extremists, but we are questioning long-standing traditions, investigating monuments intended to honor suspect characters previously recognized as heroes, and scrutinizing the meaning attached to holidays. The very act of statues being taken down, for example, is highly symbolic, has sparked heated debate, but is also something I never thought would occur in my lifetime.

It’s tough to process everything because it seems for every small victory, we are confronted by several tragic situations, but at least those situations are coming to light, being widely talked about, and have served as a call to action. The key – and the hope for the future – is to make enough progress to drastically reduce, and one day eliminate the attitudes and conditions that have spawned these unforgivable transgressions against humanity.

The next generation must embrace growth of consciousness, through education, communication, cooperation, and action. I think artists can play a huge role in that – I think it’s absolutely critical for us to investigate each other’s cultures, listen to each other’s stories and give each other feedback. It is only through these essential conversations that we can reach a deeper level of understanding that we can then jump off from and talk about the next step, working together to create new standards for society. We need to build bridges and tear down walls. Art, created through whatever medium, can help facilitate that process. Our evolution as human beings is not guaranteed, but we have the intelligence for it to be possible, I will always believe that.

You seem to have a very positive outlook for the future of the world, which not only transmits through your artwork but through the charities and events you attend. How do you cultivate and keep this philosophical view, and what advice do you have for people who are faltering in view of recent political events?

Well, I believe positivity is a choice, and I learned that the hard way. It can be a difficult choice to be honest, especially when confronted with extreme adversity, but nonetheless there is a conscious choice to be made. Certainly, positivity comes more easily to some than others, depending on personal circumstance, hard wiring, and our natural state of happiness but with the right education, and philosophical tools, one can learn how to consistently make that choice.

There was a period of time over a decade ago that I was going through some growth challenges that I couldn’t comprehend, and I wilted in the face of adversity. I didn’t have the philosophical toolkit to manage my situation in a constructive way and so I gave in to mental laziness, our default mechanism, and comforted myself by building a cocoon of negativity around me. I would allow myself to complain to whoever would listen; I’d get salty about perceived injustices, whether real or imagined, and just be a critical, judgmental, negative drag. I lived in that cocoon for while, and shockingly, and I say that sarcastically of course, nothing changed, I didn’t transform. I just stayed stuck, attracting more and more negativity because that’s what I was putting out there, and my cocoon became a straight jacket.

One day, in my usual melodramatic barrage of bitching and moaning, I said something sarcastic and over the top to a close friend, also an artist, that I ended up deeply regretting. It wasn’t so much their reaction to what I said but more me repeating it over and over in my mind, looking in the mirror, and being so disappointed with myself. I knew this wasn’t the real me, and it wasn’t what I wanted to put out there in the world. Almost simultaneously, a romantic relationship ended that affected me deeply. It was a dark time. I knew I needed to change, and that I had to embark on a mission to transform my consciousness. As soon as I made that a declaration, it wasn’t more than a day or two later that someone I just met suggested I read a book called The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz.

That was the beginning. I was recommended other books by Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, Brian Tracy, Jerry and Esther Hicks, Gay Hendricks all having to do with spiritual growth and transformation that were key in my evolution. It’s in an ongoing process that now involves meditation, listening to lectures, and getting philosophical advice from some important mentors. I now think of keeping your mind positive in the same way as we go to the gym and exercise to keep our bodies fit. You can’t just go to the gym 10 times, then quit and say ‘okay, I’m done, I’m in shape now and this will last forever. It’s something you need to work at on a regular basis and stay disciplined with. It can be tricky to maintain sometimes, but having a super solid philosophical and emotional structure is the key to navigating any circumstance, weathering any storm, including the difficult times we live in.

Being involved in charity events is important for me because I’m keen to help people whenever possible, I’m a very empathetic person. I feel like I can easily relate to the emotional experiences of others, which can be difficult at times, but also allows me greater insight, which I think makes me a better artist. It can also help contextualize my own challenges and being able to step back and have more a worldview in that regard is always enlightening for me. And to know that as an artist I can contribute something tangible to help raise awareness or funding in support of a worthy cause is very gratifying and meaningful. I appreciate the opportunity.

Philosophically, physically, metaphysically, what does the future hold for you? Are there any mediums you’d like to work with, or people you’d like to collaborate with? It’s really about continuing to expand in all disciplines – I have a lot of room for improvement spiritually and creatively, and want to continue to keep increasing my knowledge base as it pertains to philosophy and our current social conditions. I plan to keep doing the inner work I need to do to elevate my consciousness, and hopefully will inspire those around me to do the same. As an artist I feel I have a lot more to give, in fact I know I haven’t done my best work yet, so I’ll continue pushing for those breakthroughs and to transmit positive messages

I do want to experiment with other mediums – I’ve been thinking a lot about film and sculpture lately – so I’ll have to make room to delve deeper into those disciplines somewhere along the way. And I love collaborating – I have a bunch of artists in mind for a big collaborative exhibition that will have a charity component to it. I really enjoy synergistic projects, which I’ve barely scratched the surface of, so I’m excited to continue building in that direction.

And it is important that I further my efforts to give back on all levels, from charity organizations to mentoring and supporting younger artists. As I get older, the bigger picture is coming into view, there is still a long road ahead, but for now I’m focused on appreciating the journey.


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