Love, Strength, & Soul: Engaging the Packer Community Through Art
By Lucy Bernstein & Daisy Zuckerman
Mr. Tim Okamura, glass bottle of kombucha in hand, leaned forward in his seat and spoke excitedly about the meaning behind his art, which is currently occupying the Shen Gallery.
“From the very beginning, it’s been a lot about vibes,” Mr. Okamura explained. “I think that’s one thing I’ve been fortunate to have, a sense of good people throughout life. I grew up in a place with a lot of great folks; very down to earth.”
Mr. Okamura was born and raised in Edmonton, Canada, surrounded by a diverse group of friends. He then went on to study at both the Alberta College of Art & Design in Calgary and the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Mr. Okamura’s art, created with oil paint, collage, spray paint, and mixed media, typically features women of color in urban settings. His paintings often incorporate bold words, phrases, and symbols to convey his message of empowerment.
“The juxtaposition of the rawness and urgency of street art and academic ideals has created a visual language that acknowledges a traditional form of storytelling through portraiture, while infusing the work with resonant contemporary motifs,” Mr. Okamura’s digital biography explains.
Nine of Mr. Okamura’s remarkable portraits, all done in a combination of oil paint and other materials, hang on the walls of the newly renovated Shen Gallery. Three more pieces are placed in the Atrium Overlook, directly outside the Shen.
After coming upon his work at AFROPUNK festival last summer, Semeka Smith-Williams, Director of Diversity and Equity, and Lynnette Arthur, Lower School Head Teacher, asked Mr. Okamura if he would be willing to put together a collection of his portraits to be hung at Packer. Even with opportunities as prestigious as he has had, such as being asked to paint a portrait of the Queen of England, Mr. Okamura was thrilled to be able share his work with students.
“There’s so much magic working with children; there’s just so much purity and so much enthusiasm and there aren’t all these blockages,” said Mr. Okamura. “As we get older, a lot of little criticisms get hardwired into us and we become very self-critical and destabilized. It’s a hard thing to identify and overcome as adults, but when you’re young it’s just so pure and there’s a lot enthusiasm that goes along with that innocence.”
According to Mr. Okamura, the inspiration behind his distinct portraiture came simply from a question that he asked himself: “Who’s cool that I haven’t seen painted? Who are some friends of mine who I’ve never seen portraits of?”
Since developing his distinctive artistic style and methodology, blossoming artists have looked to Mr. Okamura’s work for inspiration when depicting underrepresented groups of women.
“I think there’s a question surrounding, you know, ‘Is it okay to paint somebody that doesn’t look like you?’” pointed out Mr. Okamura. “That’s kind of an interesting question, and obviously my answer is yes, it is okay.”
Although some people question the path that Mr. Okamura has chosen to take with his art, he insists that as a community, we have to be brave enough to do things that some people might challenge.
“There haven’t been enough images of women of color in a role that is showing strength and courage and independence and power,” Mr. Okamura explained. “So, I’m hoping that I can add some imagery to the whole pantheon of images that’s lacking, and I also hope that some of the questions that arise from the discussions add interesting dialogue to the Packer community.”
Within Packer, there has already been notable conversation surrounding certain works of art featured in the Shen. In February, several student coordinators organized a women’s forum in the space to address current issues of intersectionality.
Amadi Williams (‘21), one of the student curators of the new installation, shared her thoughts on the significance of Mr. Okamura’s artwork. “I think that this exhibit relates to the current issues regarding intersectionality because people of color are very underrepresented in the arts,” said Amadi. “And to see these women of color shown in such a beautiful way is really inspirational.”
Of the pieces in the new installation, student favorites include the multimedia piece entitled Division, which is made from oil paint and pumice rocks. Its three-dimensional appearance and location near the entrance of the Shen catches the eye and places it in prime viewing light to notice all the detail.
The official opening of Love, Strength, and Soul took place on Wednesday, April 3rd, where students and faculty gathered in the Shen to hear Mr. Okamura speak about the intentions and messages behind his work.