Painted on the wall of Brooklyn’s iconic Gleason’s Gym is a quote by an ancient Roman poet: “Now whoever has courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves and put up his hands.” Exchange gloves for paint brushes, and that quote easily applies to artists in New York City’s highly competitive scene.
That’s the underlying theme in former amateur boxer and Gleason alumni Jeff Martini’s feature length documentary HEAVYWEIGHTPAINT, opening the Edmonton International Film Festival on Sept.29. (Q&A to follow.) The film follows the lives of Tim Okamura and his friends—Jerome Lagarrigue, Joseph Adolphe, and Taha Clayton—as they navigate the often unpredictable world of New York’s arts scene.
Martini met Edmonton-born figurative artist Okamura at a gym in the neighbourhood of Williamsburg. What started as a discussion for a short feature on Okamura would later turn into a much larger project, following the four artists over the course of five years.
“These artists, like boxers, train so hard to get to where they are,” says Martini, “but in the moment—in the fight—you have to let go, like these artists let go of the stroke and become one with the moment. Then they stop and [assess] what they’ve done—like a boxer stops in between rounds—then go back to reacting and creating.”
For Okamura, surviving 25 years in New York—the last few years as a full-time artist—has not been easy.
“The one constant that you’re always going to battle as a creative person is fear,” says Okamura, “and that fear is going to keep you in [a box].”
The voice of fear will tell you not to leave home, he says, reflecting on his experiences in leaving home.
“I’ve experienced some absolutely dreadful lows over 25 years of being [in New York],” he adds. “Moments that almost broke me—but it’s that cliché of: ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’”
He moved to New York in 1991, after graduating from the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary. Okamura was influenced by classic painters he’d long admired—seeing a Rembrandt for the first time while visiting The Met—but also by unknown street artists creating masterpieces on the sides of buildings. With the grit and pulse of the city reverberating on every corner, New York spoke to him in a very personal way.
“It really grabbed me,” he says. “It was just one of the few times in my life where I felt just completely taken over by a passion for something and that was the city. I just loved it and I knew I had to be here.”
Okamura’s work consists primarily of women of colour. That, combined with his mashup of influences and finely-honed technical abilities has as synonymous with New York as the inspirations that originally drew him there. While classic fine art has often neglected noble depictions of minority groups, for Okamura, it’s not so much about making a grand political statement as it is about his on-going search for beauty. It just also happened to become a source of light for an underrepresented community.
“I wasn’t seeing very many—if any—representations of people of colour. [Growing up] a lot of my friends and the people I surrounded myself with were mostly minorities—friends from Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica—that was my world,” he says. “For most artists that do figurative portraits, they usually end up painting their friends to start, so that’s how it started for me and it kind of branched out from there.”
The slow trajectory of his career has yielded some incredible experiences. In October 2015, Okamura was among 10 artists honoured at the White House for their contributions to social justice. His painting, “The Promise,” was selected to hang in the East Wing. But he understands that with growing exposure, comes increased responsibility. While he’s a fighter, for him it’s also about the worthwhile fight.
“I think that it’s important to continue to portray women of colour, people of colour, in a way that has a positive message as the backbone of the work. I love the balance of strength and beauty and that inner fire that you see in somebody’s eyes; that’s what I’m always after.”