ART INSTALLATION NO. 36 – TIM OKAMURA AND A COVID CONNECTION. This is a story about the importance of art and the power of human connection. I know there’s a lot of heartbreak associated with the pandemic. But, for a change, here’s a heartwarming story. It all started in early 2020.
My best friend from high school, Eileen Greene, is a Nursing Manager at NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn, NY. Though we haven’t lived in the same place since 1982, we’ve always kept in touch. Through good times and bad, we are there for each other. We’ve managed to see each other a handful of times over the last 39 years and it’s always like we’ve never skipped a beat. Here’s a photo of me and my son visiting Eileen and her sister and Mom in Brooklyn in the spring of 2019.
In March of 2020, Eileen started sending me cryptic emails and texts. They got worse as the months wore on. This one really got me.
50 % of my staff sick. God is protecting me I know because have to lead the staff. Covering 2 units – the other nurse manager very sick. Good news we have finally gotten traveler nurses helping and coming from all parts of US. God bless them. Admissions less but many deaths every day. We have a team that just does post-mortem care and to take bodies to a cooler truck trailer . Can’t sleep at night.Eileen Greene, April 19, 2020
While the part of Canada where I live had not been hard hit by the Covid-19 virus, Eileen was not only in a North American epicentre, she was managing not one, but two huge medical units. The nursing manager on the medical ward adjacent to hers had been taken down by the virus. What she was seeing, even though she was a nurse for 37 years at that point, was so disturbing she couldn’t sleep at night. All I could do was offer an ear and words of comfort.
Enter Tim Okamura
I’ve long been a fan of the artist Tim Okamura. Tim was born in raised in Edmonton, Alberta. He graduated from the Alberta College of Art and Design (now Alberta University of the Arts) and moved to New York to attend the School of Visual Arts. There he earned a M.F.A. in Illustration as Visual Journalism in 1993. He has lived in Brooklyn since.
I got to know Tim Okamura’s work through my company Alberta Food Tours. For several years before the pandemic we had a Palate to Palette, food and art appreciation, tour that we offered. It started at Hotel Arts in Calgary and Tim’s painting, “King” is undoubtedly the masterpiece in their collection. His approach of using a mix of graffiti and realism is easy to see here. The piece was part of a series on modern day martyrs. Someday, if you come on a tour with me, I’ll love to talk more about all the things going on in this painting and how the artist communicates so much more than what first meets the eye. I love this painting.
I also love another Okamura I’ve gotten to enjoy in person. This one resides at Liquidity Winery in Okanagan Falls, B.C. Owner Ian MacDonald is a serious art collector. He purchased “The Lioness” for the winery. Here’s a post Tim made about visiting the painting at the winery himself.
The Successful artist and Person
By now, you realize Tim is a success as an artist. His paintings have been shown and collected globally. His portraits have been selected five times to appear at the London’s National Portrait Gallery. His work is included in many movies (School of Rock, Prime, Jersey Girl, The Hottest State and Boyhood) and collected by several actors including Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke.
Tim is also sought after to do portraits for magazine covers. Below you can watch him paint Dr. Antonio Fauci for the cover of Time Magazine.
But, beyond this material success, Tim Okamura is a success as a human being. He uses his art to fight for what he believes in. Black Lives Matter might be a new movement for many. But, Tim’s been drawing attention to issues of injustice, exclusion and inequality for decades. He often donates profits from his work to support solutions as you see below.
Making the connection
I keep up with Tim’s work through Instagram. On May 5, 2020 I noticed an unusual post. It was a candid photo of the artist holding a bulb of garlic.
Turns out, Tim was in his seventh week of recovering from Covid. He was a “long-hauler” with lingering mental haze, fatigue and headaches. He said, “I consider myself very fortunate. I live across the street from a hospital – refrigerator trucks (makeshift morgue) are set up right outside my kitchen window. I’ve seen into the backs of those trucks too many times & they are a sobering daily reminder of the possible tragic outcome of this disease.”
I commented on Tim’s post that I hoped he recovered fully and that the hospital he was looking at might be where my friend Eileen was the Nursing Manager of a Covid unit. Tim then sent me a Direct Message asking if I might possibly connect him with my friend as he said, “I’m working on a small project to honor nurses dealing with Covid by doing their portraits.”
Of course, I connected Tim and Eileen!
By May 27, 2020 Tim sent me the photo you saw at the top of this post. And since meeting Eileen and the team of nurses she leads, he’s painted several of their portraits as you can see below.
Eileen wrote to me the day Tim visited her units at NYU Langone Hospital. She said he lifted everyone’s spirits. “It was amazing to be recognized, to know that someone knew we existed and that we were fighting to save lives.”
Health Care Heroes
Tim is calling this series he is working on, Health Care Heroes. It’s National Nursing Week here in Canada. I wanted to post this to recognize all the nurses that are unsung heroes here and everywhere in the world. I’m a bigger Tim Okamura fan than ever. I hope you will follow his career and support him in his work as well.
I hope you’ve found this story of making connections during a pandemic inspiring. I believe it’s even more important than ever to reach out to others and support them however we can. In my case, by helping an artist I’ve admired a long time, I was able to help a dear friend and a lot of nurses as well. And that my friends, helping others, is really how to savour it all.
Note: This is NOT a sponsored post. Full disclosure: I was a nurse for 21 years!