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lime Exhibitions Interview: Tim Okamura

Lime interview - Exhibitions

Tim Okamura

words by

Adelaide Damoah

Reporter: Adelaide Damoah
Adelaid Damoah’s work can be found here

Tim Okamura is a contemporary Canadian artist most well known for his beautiful and realistic depictions of African Americans and other minorities in urban landscapes.

His stunning and positive depictions of groups of people who have rarely been treated with such dignity in art history are a powerful testament to his views on racial differences and the problems that focusing on these differences can bring to society. Born in 1968, Okamura obtained a Bachelor of Fine Art degree from the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, Canada. He subsequently moved to New York and obtained his Masters in Fine Art from the eponymous School of Visual Arts. His career highlights to date include his paintings being featured in several motion pictures, being selected for the prestigious BP Portrait award for the National Portrait Gallery in London five times and being short-listed to paint Queen Elisabeth in 2006. Tim took some time out from painting and marketing his latest Kickstarter project, “Heavyweight Paint,” to discuss his views on success in art with me. 



I see that you have had several solo shows since graduating. What year was your first solo show?


It took a while because I was doing a lot of stuff for advertising agencies. Story boards and commercial art, illustrations for album covers and that type of thing... I had the first show of my work in around 1999 or 2000. It probably took about seven years from graduation for me to do a solo show. 


Did you sell anything at your first show

I think I sold one or two! I set the bar pretty low when I first started. I did not have any expectations. My early shows were breaking even and that was a victory to me. 


At what point were you able to go full time doing your work for shows?

Around the time I started to do art work for films. I worked on a film in 2004 called Prime staring Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep. They featured a lot of my work and I also did a portrait of Uma Thurman which did not make the final cut of the movie. Right at that time, I was able to make a little bit of money from the film and I also happened to have a couple of sales in London and elsewhere which helped me to make that jump. My friends helped as well.



Considering everything you have achieved to date, what would you say success in the art world means to you?


Having a gallery that supports you and understands your work,  that is certainly a huge pillar of success. Being able to make a living off the work is another important aspect. I think the most important of all is really feeling like you are connecting with people. 


By your definition, would you consider yourself to be successful? 


Yes, to some degree. It is a little tough. When you are in your own shoes, it is harder to see where you are at sometimes. I think from other peoples perspective, from their stand point, it is like a slam dunk. But the further you climb up the ladder, the more you see ahead of you. I never really sit and pat myself on the back or anything like that... 


What do you feel is your biggest success and why?


The people I have connected with have been people I never would have expected to connect with. That is one huge thing. I usually get emails from France, Italy and Australia. It's great! That is a sign of having some success... Working on the film stuff has been fantastic. Going to the premier of Prime... They gave me my own limousine! Conversely, the short-listing... It was not super formal, but it was the Royal Surveyor of the Queens pictures who had seen my work at the National Portrait Gallery in London, who invited me to come and speak with him at St James Palace! I had to check in with the  Royal Guard there and I sat in this grand tea room in St James Palace speaking with him. That was a very unexpected moment. It certainly made me feel at that point that I had at least done something worthy of conversation.



What would you say was your biggest failure or set back?


There have been several shows where I have been banking on making money to live from and I put everything I had into the show in terms of costs and the show was a dud. It is kind of a gamble and I still consider myself to be an emerging artist in a lot of ways. There are certain galleries where I do very well and at others it is more of a crap shoot. That is tough... I don’t think those were necessarily mistakes that I made, but more the galleries were the wrong ones to show at. 


For me when I have had shows and not sold anything, I have felt really down about it. How did you overcome that and continue?


It is hard because of the financial repercussions. There have been times when I sat there and thought I was too ambitious with the work, and maybe I should have done smaller pieces... After a show, there is that kind of vacuum if it does not do well where you just sit and think. But at a certain point, you know that there is no plan B, so you just have to figure out how to survive in the wake of a disappointing show and just start working on the next one. You might as well do everything you can to start working again, as soon as you can. A lot of the time, I have sold a painting down the line that someone was not sure about at the time of the show. Or I have taken the work to a different gallery, or pieced it together somehow and kept moving forward.



Knowledge is Power


What advice would you give to an up and coming artist wishing to follow in your direction?


You need to have a realistic plan. Luckily, I had some friends who were able to point me in the right direction in terms of having a short term, medium term and long term plan. My long term plan was always to be a painter. The medium term was at the point when I was interested in doing commercial art with album covers and books. That was a medium term thing, doing the commercial art, freelancing, hustling, having an agent... 


I had an instructor in grad school who said to me, 


“Listen, I will tell you the same thing my instructor told me when I was in school. For anybody that stuck it out, you have to give yourself at least 10 years before your technical skills, your ideas and your opportunities mesh. After that, you actually start to do some stuff!” 


I always have that in the back of my head. He said, “I am not lying to you, I am not trying to scare you, it is reality.” 


It was almost ten years to the day when I did my first big show and I realised that he was so right. 


Tim Okamura is currently represented by Lyons Wier gallery in New York.: 


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