Edmonton-raised artist Tim Okamura creates portrait series honouring health-care workers

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It's a side of the COVID-19 pandemic we don't often see — inside our hospitals. Morgan Black shares how Edmonton-raised artist Tim Okamura is using his talent to give us a glimpse of what front-line health-care workers face – Nov 16, 2020

Tim Okamura is painting a side of COVID-19 we don’t often see. The artist has gone inside hospitals with front-line health-care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, capturing their heartbreaks and triumphs.

“They were so emotional about everything they had seen and gone through,” he explained.

“Trying to figure out how to treat patients, how to deal with the virus. How to allow COVID patients who weren’t going to make it to say goodbye.”

For the past twenty years, Okamura’s art has focused on representing women of colour.

A portrait by Tim Okamura. Courtesy: Tim Okamura

Raised in Edmonton, Okamura moved to New York City in the early 90s.

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“Everything I loved in life was happening in New York. It was calling me. I thought I would stay for a couple years and now I’ve been here for almost 30 years.”

The artist said his professional and personal life was rocked by the pandemic.

In March, Okamura was diagnosed with COVID-19. His cousin died from the virus on the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship. Okamura watched from his apartment in Brooklyn as a major hospital reached capacity.

“The very first refrigerator truck or makeshift morgue was moved into place which was right outside my kitchen window. I was seeing body after body being rolled out. It was incredibly difficult.”

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When New York residents began honouring health-care workers through a nightly outdoor applause, it got him wondering what more he could do to give back. Through waves of extreme fatigue related to his own diagnosis, Okamura began to paint.

Read more: Coronavirus: Nightly applause for health-care workers comes to Vancouver

“I thought ‘What specialized skills do I have that I can take this a little bit further?'” he said. “I thought I could do some portraits of people who are working and give them as ‘thank you’ gifts.”

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He created the “Healthcare Heroes” series, which depicts health-care workers on the job.

Tim Okamura poses in front of a portrait. Courtesy: Tim Okamura
A friend in Calgary had connections to nurses working in a Brooklyn hospital’s COVID-19 unit. Okamura got in touch and was invited to come inside the hospital [which had been vacated at that point] and spent time with the nurses.

“They were so emotional about everything they had seen and had gone through,” he said. “We need to give our respect to these workers. The incredible job they had to do and were forced to do, is pretty mind-blowing.”

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Okamura is currently finishing up the series, after meeting with many nurses and physicians. He said he is still hit with waves of emotion over the experience.

“Speaking to those healthcare workers about what they went through… it was hard. It was hard to not feel it yourself.”

Tim Okamura with “PPE Healthcare Heroes” in progress. Courtesy: Tim Okamura

The artist still intends to give the smaller portraits back to his subjects as gifts. Larger group portraits will be sold with the majority of the funds being donated to the subjects charity of choice.

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He said he hopes the series gives viewers a reminder of the battle still happening inside our hospitals.

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“I hope it brings a sense of gratitude. I think [the project] represents the gratitude of so many people,” he said.

“I hope in showing their stoicism and spirit that others who doubted the seriousness of the pandemic will get some of that emotional impact resonating back to them.”

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