For several months last year, Edmonton-raised painter, Tim Okamura, lived with cameras as co-star of the documentary Heavyweightpaint. The film follows the lives of four artists and friends as they collectively plan a large-scale boxing-themed exhibition that runs from May 13 to 17 in New York.
Funded by a Kickstarter campaign (with some proceeds from the exhibition going towards the Brotherhood-Sister Sol organization for youth support), the film explores the day-to-day struggles of the artists, who must incorporate boxing into their paintings. Okamura focuses on female boxers of various cultures while the camera captures his personal challenges around creative fulfillment and work-life balance. “It’s like treading water,” says Okamura, “you have to keep that momentum going.”
But external struggles went beyond the challenge of maintaining creative momentum when tropical storm Sandy hit about a month before the exhibition was initially scheduled to open. The flood waters rose about six feet high into the studio of one of the artists, destroying some of his work, and the show was put on hold. But Okamura and the other artists were determined that the show go on and, after a lot of hard work, they succeeded.
Through his art, Okamura wants to give a voice to people, especially those who are underrepresented – like the female boxers in his documentary. But his intentions aren’t always understood. At a show this year, someone verbally attacked him, claiming that the artist of British and Japanese descent is exploiting a culture that isn’t his because he’d painted portraits of black women for the show. “The guy was angry. He said, ‘Black people should paint black people. White people should paint white people.'” Okamura adds, “I’m half Japanese – what now?”
The 44-year-old artist is known for his urban aesthetic that incorporates hip-hop culture and modern graffiti into his art, and he doesn’t deny owing a lot to his African-American subjects.
Okamura’s talents have become favoured by Hollywood. He painted a portrait for the set of the Richard Gere film Unfaithful and a portrait of Uma Thurman for the movie Prime. You can also spot his paintings in the opening credits of School of Rock.
Most recently, he collaborated with John Mellencamp (who also paints) after the music superstar, while he was on tour in Edmonton, discovered Okamura’s work in the Douglas Udell Gallery. Mellencamp invited Okamura to his home to paint a portrait of his two sons, and then they collaborated. The painter recalls Mellencamp telling him, “‘The last time I did a collaboration was with Dylan. He took the painting. But this one – I want it back.'”