Fredericton’s Willie O’Ree comes home through Beaverbrook Art Gallery

Painter Tim Okumura helps unveil his portrait of NHL legend Willie O'Ree at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, N.B., on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. (Daniel Salas/AQ)

Fredericton’s Beaverbrook Art Gallery acted as the backdrop for a ceremony on Jan. 18, unveiling a portrait of Willie O’Ree, the first Black hockey player in the NHL, that now sits in the gallery’s permanent collection. 

The portrait was unveiled on the 65th anniversary of his first NHL game and is mounted next to an Andy Warhol portrait of Wayne Gretsky.

“It couldn’t have gone any better,” said John Leroux, the curator of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. “You could feel the support in that room, there was a lot of love in that room for Willie.”

The artist behind O’Ree’s portrait is Tim Okamura, a Japanese-Canadian born in Edmonton who has since moved to New York City. His roots in Atlantic Canada stem from his mother, who spent her childhood in St. John’s, Nfld.

“She always talks about how she remains a proud Newfie,” said Okamura. 

As Okamura’s career developed, he became primarily interested in representations of people of colour, particularly women. He is internationally recognized for his work and received a letter of commendation in 2015 from then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden for his art.

Okamura grew up an avid hockey fan and said his friends in New York often told him there was no Black representation in Hockey, which inspired him to marry his two passions. 

O’Ree posed for Okamura in a hotel room in Philadelphia wearing his Bruins jersey and his recently-acquired Hockey Hall of Fame ring. 

“His sense of humour really struck me. It helps us round out what an incredible human he is beyond the hockey aspect of his life,” said Okamura. 

Okamura was in the Maritimes for the first time on Jan. 18 for the unveiling. When the portrait was officially unveiled Okamura was filled with emotion.

“Having this lasting image at the gallery … represents this aspect of diversity in Fredericton that I think is super important,” he said.  “Hopefully it will resonate with the community for years to come.”

While O’Ree was not present at the unveiling, Leroux said the ceremony felt like a great collective energy of support for Fredericton, its culture and its history.

“[It was] all the good things that Fredericton represents and our community socially coming together at a time, and one of our favorite sons who was in California but considers Fredericton home.”