Many people think artists create their work from what they know or who they are, so many art lovers are curious about Tim Okamura's paintings. He's half Japanese, half British. He was born and raised in Canada. He earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1993. His paintings are featured in films, including "School of Rock," "Pieces of April" and "Jersey Girl," and collected by celebrities, including actress Uma Thurman and filmmaker Bryan Greenberg.
These days, Okamura's favorite subjects are the African-American women of New York City. His new exhibit "Bronx Brooklyn Queens" is currently on display at New York's Lyons Wier Gallery.
In an interview with NPR host Michel Martin, Okamura traces his artistic roots to his upbringing in Canada. He says there was not a lot to do during the long winters and adds, "I used to bother my mother, and she would give me paper and pencils and eventually bought me some finger paints. And that somehow seemed to click."
Okamura says a natural evolution led him to create "Bronx Brooklyn Queens," and it began with his interest and involvement in hip hop. In Canada, he even had a hip hop radio show.
"I was into not only the music, but other aspects of the culture — graffiti — and just really got interested in American urban experiences. When I moved into New York, I was dropped down right in the heart, the birthplace of hip hop. People I was meeting were often times directly involved in the scene, and a lot of those people became subjects for me to paint," says Okamura.
In this new exhibit, his subjects are friends, or friends of friends. He describes his exhibit as a blend of "realistic portraiture, figurative work with graffiti elements in the background and urban motifs."
He confirms that people are surprised that someone named Okamura is producing such paintings of African-American women. "For the most part, though, the reaction is very positive," he says. "I just think that the surprise comes from ... in life, people just want to draw the shortest line between two points, and then when they find out what I look like and who I am and my background, then they sort of have to think a little bit more about how this connection happened."
Some people are excited when people from different backgrounds discover each other. But other times, Okamura says a few people express resentment and question whether he's appropriating another culture for his personal profit. He says that kind of reaction doesn't come from his generation and those who are younger. "I think an older generation of art collectors seems to be a little more aware of that."
He adds, "Sometimes people question a little bit, but I don't consider myself trying to say I'm an authority on African-American culture of life per se. I'm really a storyteller, and in my portraits, there's a narrative, and I think that the people I paint, in my opinion, have a very important story that needs to be told."
His family's story has informed his own identity and work. Members of his father's family were forcibly sent to internment camps.
Okamura says, "What a lot of people don't know is that in Canada as well as America, basically the government was fearful that in Canada, the Japanese Canadians would be sympathetic to the Japanese once World War II broke out. So their plan was to move all the people off the coasts."
He says his grandfather was a fisherman. His family received a notice from the government, which gave them one month to pack a suitcase and report to the train station.
"Basically, the government took their house, took their car, took their boat, took their lives away, and sent them to an internment camp in Western Canada" says Okamura.
He adds that the family was then given the choice of farming sugar beets or raising chickens as their new life. His grandfather decided to farm sugar beets, without any knowledge or experience. And the family moved into a chicken coop that was on the government-issued land. They slowly built a house with the money they earned from farming.
"I tell the story of the internment camp sometimes because I think it has brought about some empathy ingrained in me. And I think even my experiences growing up being half Japanese, half Caucasian, I was different than any other kid that I went to school with. So I experienced issues of prejudice and people thinking I was Native-American. They couldn't wrap their heads around who I was. I would get into fights at school for no reason — I couldn't even understand. But I think that experience definitely helped me relate to some of the things I have learned firsthand moving to New York about ... the African-American experience in terms of what it's like to experience racism, prejudice, discrimination. I can relate to those things."
Okamura says an important aspect of his art is an emotional connection, and he hopes people feel that empathy when they see his work.