MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
Finally today, on this program we often talk about interesting intersections and conversations that develop around race and ethnicity. We have one of those today, it involves art. Many people think that artists make their art and create from what they know or who they are. So many art lovers are curious about painter Tim Okamura's work. He describes himself as half Japanese, half British. He was born and raised in Canada, but his favorite subjects these days are the African-American women of New York. His new exhibition, "Bronx Brooklyn Queens," is currently on display at New York's Lyons Wier Gallery. And Tim Okamura joins us now.
Welcome to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.
TIM OKAMURA: Thank you for having me, Michel. Appreciate it.
MARTIN: How did you become an artist to begin with?
OKAMURA: Well, growing up in Canada, there was probably, there wasn't really a lot to do because the winters were long. 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. That's how I got on that track, I guess, as a young age.
MARTIN: Well, you're classically trained, just to give people kind of a sense of your background. You have a MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and some of your paintings have been seen in several films - people who will have seen "School of Rock,"...
MARTIN: ...for example, or may have seen, you know, some of your work in the background. So how did you come upon or choose your current subject, African-American women in New York?
OKAMURA: I think it was a pretty natural evolution in that I was very, very much excited by hip-hop. I had, actually, a hip-hop radio show in Canada, which was the only hip-hop radio show, so I was pretty deeply involved. I had, you know, guests like Will Smith and Ice-T on my show and I was, you know, really into not only the music, but other aspects of the culture, graffiti, and just really got interested, I think, in kind of American urban experiences.
When I moved to New York, all of a sudden I was dropping down right in the, you know, in the heart of the birthplace of hip-hop, and people that I was meeting were oftentimes directly involved in the scene, and a lot of those types of people became subjects for me to paint.
MARTIN: Well, how would you describe the work? I would describe it as very kind of realistic. Not quite photographic but...
OKAMURA: Right. I really usually just tell people it's like realistic portraiture, figurative work with graffiti elements in the background and urban motifs. It's kind of a blend of a couple of different things...
MARTIN: Well, that sounds about right. Are these all friends of yours?
OKAMURA: Yeah, all friends or friends of friends. And yeah, I try to have some kind of relationship with the people that I paint, because when I'm working on them, you know, for an expended period of time, it's nice to have a connection with that person, I think, and that comes across in the work, I hope.
MARTIN: To that point, though, are people surprised when they look at this work, which has a very - let me just put it this way - there's no ethnic ambiguity here. The subjects you've chosen, they have a very clear, you know, kind of strong African-American cultural look. Their clothing is very contemporary. What's the word? I would say maybe ethnic pride elements that people will recognize...
MARTIN: ...from the way people sort of choose to attire themselves. A lot of their hair is natural.
MARTIN: And is anybody ever surprised that it's a guy name Okamura doing this work?
OKAMURA: I would say there is quite a bit of surprise quite often. For the most part, though, the reaction was very positive. I just think that the surprise comes from, you know, in life people want to sort of 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, you know, how this connection happened.
MARTIN: Well, you know, on the one hand it could be a sensitive topic in art. I mean it may - maybe people - on the one hand, some people are excited when people from different backgrounds discover each other, right?
OKAMURA: Right. Right.
MARTIN: We could put it that way. On the other hand, sometimes there's resentment, because people say why is this person from this other background appropriating my life or my culture...
MARTIN: ...to his own use? And I wonder if you've ever gotten that.
OKAMURA: I think I have gotten that, not very much at all from my generation and younger. I think, you know, an older generation of art collector seems to be a little bit more aware of that. Sometimes people question it a little bit. But I don't consider myself trying to say I'm an authority on African-American, you know, culture or life per se. I'm really a storyteller and in my portraits there's a narrative, and I think the people that I paint, in my opinion, have a very important story that needs to be told.
MARTIN: Speaking of story, part of your family's story, I hope it's okay my mentioning this, but that part of your family's story is that members of your father's family were interned during World War II forcibly. Do you think that that experience in some way informs your work?
OKAMURA: That certainly has made, you know, it's made me who I am. But yeah, what a lot of people don't know is that in Canada as well is America, basically the government was fearful that in Canada the Japanese Canadians would be sympathetic to the Japanese, you know, once World War II broke out. So their plan was to basically move all the people off the coast. So essentially my father's family, his father was a fisherman so they, you know, had set up a pretty decent business and basically got a notice from the government saying you have - I think it was till the end of the month, to pack up one suitcase per family member, report to the train station, and 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.
They were then given a choice of their new life, and that was either to farm sugar beets or raise chickens. And my grandfather, not knowing anything about either, for some reason decided to farm sugar beets. And so they gave him a plot of land and my father has six brothers and sisters - they moved into a chicken coop.
OKAMURA: And as they slowly started to make some money from farming sugar beets, they eventually kind of added on a little extra room to the chicken coop and then another little room, and they sort of kind of built their own house slowly but surely. You know, I tell the story of, you know, the internment camp sometimes because I think that it's brought about some empathy ingrained in me. And I think that, you know, even my experiences growing up being half Japanese and, you know, half Caucasian, I was different than any other kid that I went to school with. And so I experienced, you know, issues of prejudice and people thinking I was a Native American. You know, they just couldn't really wrap their head around who I was.
And you know, I would get into fights at school for no reason, I couldn't even understand. But I think that that experience definitely helped me to relate to, you know, some of the things that I have learned, you know, firsthand moving to New York about let's say the African-American experience, for example. You know, in terms of what it's like to experience racism, prejudice, discrimination, I can relate to those things. Those feelings, I think, that I went through are similar to some of the stories that I've been told by friends of mine and by people who have posed for me. So I think that there's an emotional connection there that is an important aspect of my art, and I hope that comes across maybe in an intangible way, but I hope people feel that empathy.
MARTIN: Hmm. It is interesting, isn't it? I mean that's the thing about art, is that it exists on so many levels. It exists in just the basic level of I see it, I experience it, I react to it however I react to it. And then it exists on the relationship that we have with the person who created it and the relationship that the person who created it has with the people who are the subjects, you know, of it. How can I - I don't even really quite know where to end here except to ask what do you hope people will draw, not just from the work itself but from the fact that you created it? Is there something you think - a larger story than you think people can walk away from?
OKAMURA: I really want to pose questions to people through the work. Obviously I want there to be, you know, an aesthetic response or a visceral response to the work, just for how it looks and hopefully it's well-crafted and well executed and that is what is an entry point for people. But at the same time, I think there is a bigger picture issue. In terms of content, the models that I've chosen, you know, who I think have been underrepresented in art, and also, you know, I'm this half Japanese guy from Canada doing this work and I sort of refuse to wait for somebody else to do it. You know, I thought that these were important stories to tell and I really wanted to be the one to tell them.
MARTIN: Tim Okamura's latest exhibition is called "Bronx Brooklyn Queens." It runs through October 8th at New York's Lyons Wier Gallery. And he was kind enough to join us from NPR's bureau in New York. Tim Okamura, thank you so much for joining us.
OKAMURA: Thank you so much, Michel. I really appreciate it.
MARTIN: If you want to see the work for yourself, we will have a couple of photos from the exhibition and more information about the artist on our website. Just go to NPR.org, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE.
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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.