To mark the 65th anniversary of Willie O’Ree’s first NHL game, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery is honouring the famous Frederictonian by unveiling a new portrait, which will be part of its permanent collection.
“It was just recently given to us, and we’re so excited,” said John LeRoux, Beaverbrook Art Gallery manager of collections and exhibitions.
Canadian artist Tim Okamura, who now lives in New York City, N.Y., created the mural and is in Fredericton to unveil his work at the gallery Wednesday night.
O’Ree, who grew up in Fredericton, became the first Black person to play in the NHL in 1958, breaking the league’s colour barrier during his debut with the Boston Bruins.
Measuring five feet by five feet, the painting shows an older O’Ree wearing his Boston Bruins jersey while holding a hockey stick and sporting his Hockey Hall of Fame ring.
“It’s a wonderful contemporary portrait of this person that’s meant so much to the world of hockey and even just the world of Canada and North America,” said LeRoux.
“I find the spirit of Willie really comes through in this painting,” the curator said.
“It means a lot for us to have it in our collection because it’s as if Willie is always here in Fredericton. He lives in southern California now, so he doesn’t get home as much as he’d like, but he’s here really in a sense.”
Artist Tim Okamura says the painting is a culmination of two passions of his.
“One being representation and of people that don’t show up enough or as much as they should in museums I think, and also a huge passion for hockey growing up in Canada,” said Okamura.
“I’m Japanese-Canadian and grew up in Edmonton which is a hockey-mad city,” he said. “At one point, [I] realized I could combine the two passions and came up with the idea to do portraits of players of colour.
“That really, I think, helped to define huge contributions to hockey but also help to educate folks as to the diversity in hockey,” he said.
Okamura’s work has been recognized by President Joe Biden.
When Biden was Vice-President under Obama, he commended Okamura’s work for featuring Black, Indigenous and People of Colour prominently.
“[I was] very fortunate to have been included with a small group of artists that were honoured at the White House for artwork dealing with social justice issues,” Okamura said.
“It was just a really exciting experience to be at the White House as a Canadian artist, and then later to get the letter of commendation from Joe Biden, it’s one of my treasured items. I had no idea at that time he’d eventually become president so it’s even more astounding.”
The gallery hopes the painting resonates with a wide audience.
“It will bring people, and we welcome this, that normally wouldn’t come to the gallery,” LeRoux said.
“People who think that they maybe aren’t interested in art, who maybe just love hockey or Willie O’Ree, but we hope what will happen — and I know this will happen — is that they’ll come, see this work, go through the gallery and realize there are things that connect with them,” he said.
The portrait is featured on the cover image of O’Ree’s recent autobiography “Willie: The Game-Changing Story of the NHL’s First Black Player,” as well as the poster image of his recent film documentary.
“It just feels like the absolute right sort of fit for the final place for this painting to permanently reside,” Okamura said.
The portrait will sit in the main lobby of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery for a few days after its unveiling. Following that, it will move to its permanent home in the international collection.