Interview With Tim Okamura
Q: Tell us about your artistic aesthetic. What inspires you, what formed your outlook?
A: I have often drawn parallels with other creative mediums in order to explain my artistic outlook and aesthetic inspiration. I think using music as an analogy, in particular, has been helpful because of the commonality of our exposure and experience with it. So, I often say that in the same way I have very eclectic musical tastes in music - an affinity for rock, jazz, classical, blues, and hip-hop - I similarly find inspiration in the work of artists as diverse in range as Rembrandt, Degas, Basquiat, Lucien Freud, Richard Diebenkorn, Larry Rivers, Wildstyle graffiti writers, and street art.Multimedia Gallery
Tim Okamura Art Gallery »
In particular, I think early hip-hop best characterizes my approach: it was all about sampling a classic groove, or quintessential hook, and putting it in a new context, with a harder beat driving the track, and new words, new ideas layered on top. I like to think of the academic elements of my work - the faces, figures, - as being the classic groove while the urban motifs (doorways, Brooklyn walls, warehouse loading docks) serve as the beat, and the graffiti, written, and symbolic elements are the new messages, or even "pop culture" ideas layered on top. Separately these elements are familiar, but juxtaposed against one another I hope they take on a new meaning and create a new experience for the viewer. It's the spirit of the hip-hop dj or more recently, the mash-up dj that I hope to channel.
In the same vein, I aspire to have my work capture on some level the jarring and provocative visual encounters of New York - a hugely important influence - maybe best exemplified by taking the subway from the heart of Brooklyn to go see the Rembrandt exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: within thirty minutes you could go from looking out the window at some amazing, fresh graffiti on a brick wall somewhere to then being exposed to a timeless ode to human experience captured in a soulful self-portrait by one of the great masters of figurative art.
Q: Tell us how others describe your work versus how you see it? Do people understand it or do you constantly have to explain it?
A: I think people have often described the work as "realistic" or "real" - I prefer "real" because I take it as a double meaning - not only in a representational sense but also in a larger of context of capturing some of the soul behind the eyes of the subjects, as well as the spirit of the environments they inhabit. But I see a lot of "abstract" passages in the work that others sometimes find upon more of a prolonged investigation of the painting - I've always thought the work has had abstraction in the representation. Also, surface and shifts in texture (from impasto to washes, for example) are very important to me, and when people see the original paintings as opposed to reproductions, they have often expressed their surprise at how much of a physical experience they have with the work.
As far as explanations go, I've always hoped that people would be able to have an emotional interaction with the work regardless of age, culture, or experience in viewing art. I think when you are working in the realm of realism, the human figure, and portraiture in particular there is naturally going to be a connection made with the viewer at least on some level. To a large extent, I don't feel like I am issuing a challenge as to whether or not you "get it", but rather hope that the audience is drawn into the work, first through finding some kind of empathy for the subject(s), and then perhaps a continued exporation of the environment and meaning of any symbology or wordplay that may be present. I will answer questions as to what I was thinking about when I incorporated a specific element or what the title of the painting means to me, but obviously I want the viewer to come up with their own interpretations of the work and attach their own experience to it as well - perhaps this is most important to me.
Q: Give us an example of obstacles you have overcome or are currently struggling with.
A: I think I have always had that feeling of the work not quite fitting in - I've been told it's not painted "correctly" for the academic figure painting enthusiasts, who have kind of looked down their nose at me, and "too academic" for the conceptual crowd, who also have looked down their (even longer) nose... But hopefully this is meaningful in a positive way - I certainly wouldn't want to be pigeon-holed at all. It's just a matter of finding the right audience for the work, and fortunately for me, having the paintings featured in some Hollywood films (most prominently in "Prime" with Uma Thurman, Meryl Streep) has helped to get my work more exposure. I feel like I'm starting to find my audience.
But I definitely know I've paid my dues - I am still paying dues - and I have lived up to every classic stereotype of the "starving artist" and then some. Prior to getting into teaching I worked in advertising, bartended, waited tables, was a bouncer, delivery guy, etc. I lived in my studio - no kitchen, no shower, mice... all the good stuff... My brother kept me going for a while when times were really tough - he would give me a forty dollar allowance a couple times a week, and had to pay my rent a few times when the landlord would start giving me a hard time for being three months late (surprising, huh?). Thankfully those days seem to be behind me, but you never know - highs and lows are inherent to the career of a painter, I think. I've always said it's a rollercoaster ride (think the Cyclone at Coney Island - wooden tracks, and a shaky little lap bar, nothing else) and I can't get off - I had my chance but I'm committed now....
The other thing that is a huge concern is to keep pushing forward creatively, and finding new ideas, and new ways of communicating those ideas - I don't want to keep repeating a formula, but I also want to have some connection and (semi-)logical progression from prior work. And looking for more opportunities to exhibit here in New York and abroad. So this is a big part of the struggle now, along with staying focused on good work habits, getting better organized (must be more prompt returning e-mails, phone calls), getting enough sleep, cutting down on video games, and eating healthy foods.... I need more vitamins!
Tim's website is www.timokamura.com