Larger-than-life painting of Willie O’Ree to be unveiled in Frederick art gallery

The portrait of O’Ree

One of Fredericton’s most famous figures will have a special place on the walls of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery for years to come.

Willie O’Ree — who became the first Black man to play in the NHL when he laced up for the Boston Bruins in 1958 — is the subject of a portrait expected to be a fixture at the gallery.

The portrait will be unveiled Jan. 18, the 65th anniversary of his first NHL game. The Bruins faced off against the Montreal Canadiens.

O’Ree would go on to play 45 games for the Bruins over two seasons, scoring four goals and 10 assists.

He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018.

John Leroux, manager of collections and exhibitions at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery said the painting is five feet by five feet, and

Tim Okamura

is larger than the gallery thought it was going to be.

“It’s actually about 30 per cent larger than life size,” said Leroux.

“When you see it on the wall, it really has a strong presence. It’s a beautiful, beautiful painting of this absolutely respected and revered and important living Frederictonian.”

The painting — made possible because of an anonymous donation — is the work of Tim Okamura, an Edmonton-born artist who now lives in New York.

Okamura, who has Japanese ancestry through his father and Atlantic Canadian roots through his Newfoundland-born mother, has established himself as a major figure in the arts world.

“He’s also been shown at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery,” said Leroux. “He’s been given a commendation by then-vice president Joe Biden on his work for really promoting racial equality.”

LeRoux said Okamura’s experience as a racialized Canadian allows him to closely connect with O’Ree’s story as he understands marginalization.

“He paints a lot of people of colour … the idea of showing their inner strength and their resoluteness, and he’s extremely successful at it,” said Leroux. 

“His work is amazing. It’s got a lot of power and strength.”

The portrait has also been featured on the cover of O’Ree’s autobiography Willie.

“It’s full of energy. It doesn’t feel formal. It feels exciting,” said Leroux.

Okamura will attend the unveiling of the painting, while O’Ree will attend and speak remotely from his home in California.