At the age of ten, Tim Okamura’s parents enrolled him in a painting class where he began what would become a lifelong journey to bring stories to life on canvas. When he first picked up a brush, Okamura knew he had a knack for portraying – telling the stories of other humans.
Today, the 53-year-old painter from Bushwick has channeled that talent into a series of paintings he calls “heroes of health”. The series stars nurses who have worked tirelessly during the pandemic.
In March 2020, Okamura found out that his cousin died of COVID-19 on the same day he found out he had the virus.
“I was still dealing with the loss of my cousin and was quite ill myself. I looked out the window and saw bodies being transported in refrigerated trucks, ”Okamura said. “Not one, not two, but three trucks.”
The Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, which he lives across the street, had become overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and the morgue was at full capacity.
Okamura once saw an interview on the “Today” show featuring itinerant nurses who had come to New York at the height of the pandemic. A nurse inspired him enough to create a painting called “Traveling Nurses”.
Later, an Instagram follower found out about Okamura’s work and put him in touch with nurses at NYU Langone in Brooklyn. These nurses then became the subjects of two paintings, titled “EPI” and “Nurse Tracey”.
The latter is what Okamura called “Rosie the Riveter Part Two,” representing the strength and courage nurses maintained during the pandemic.
In emphasizing strength, Okamura knew he also had to show the moments of anguish. In a painting titled “Nurse Patti”, a nurse looks “up to heaven”, which Okamura says “captured the moment between despair and prayer”.
He was then able to speak to two nurses at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center. Okamura asked them what was the hardest part of the job during the pandemic. While discussing pediatric cases, the nurses started to cry.
This image became Okamura’s “Mourning”, which is the first time he painted someone crying.
“I think a lot of nurses compartmentalized their feelings to stay professional,” Okamura said. “But it was important for me to show that side of things.”
As a Japanese and Canadian artist, Okamura began painting portraits as a child using his various circles of friends as subjects. Representing his companions – from Trinidad, Jamaica and Guyana – was the beginning of a “representation path” for Okamura.
Her journey of creating art that adds “images to the canon of traditional academic portraiture” continued in her portraits of nurses. Okamura believes these paintings will recall an extremely important historical period in Brooklyn and beyond.
By completing these paintings, however, Okamura had a much greater achievement.
“These nurses and workers have always been there for us,” Okamura said. “It took the pandemic to shine the spotlight on their efforts. It wasn’t just for that period of time, it’s been like that for their entire career.
With this awareness came Okamura’s need to express his gratitude to these nurses. He does it through his art.
Although he did not start this series for personal benefit, the experience was rewarding. Beyond heartfelt messages from frontline healthcare workers, Okamura had many opportunities to showcase her work.
The New York Historical Society has added her painting “Nurse Tracey” to its permanent collection. This is the first portrait in the collection and the second painting by an artist of Asian origin.
Okamura’s biggest goal is to give back to the nurses whose stories he portrayed.
“Whether or not they want to be called heroes, I view them in a heroic way,” Okamura said. “I don’t think I could ever really do enough to do them justice, but I’m doing my best.”
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