Did you know that in some languages the word for mistake doesn’t exist?
I learned this after I met the painter and denim artist Iickomique “Iicky Genes” Richards-Belmontes. He talked about the Japanese term wabi-sabi and he shared the lessons he learned from growing up in the Caribbean.
Iicky’s the kind of artist who will turn whatever he finds into art. He painted with coffee on his watercolor paintings and he used tossed-out airplane paint that took three days to dry on his Jackson Pollock-inspired piece. To him, mistake is just a bad word for opportunity. “I want to be creative at all times and to encourage everyone around me to be creative,” he said.
And upon entering his apartment on the Near West Side, a long rectangular black painting with white letters repeating the words “Arte Style Culture” welcomes visitors into his home. He sets the tone for self-expression.
He moved here about three years ago from Tulsa, Oklahoma after living there for about 20 years. He and his wife, who designs and works in fashion, live together.
When I met Iicky, he wore wearing a white t-shirt, jeans that flared out just above his ankles, Nike shoes, and thick glasses that helped frame the details of his face. It’s painter’s attire. But his own sartorial potpourri is also his personal uniform, which bred from his childhood yearnings and Americana mythology. And like his style, his drive to create and to express himself began when he was a child.
He was born in Trinidad and raised in the Virgin Islands. Some people grow into their creativity but Iicky was born into it. His father was a semi-professional baseball player, an artist, and a carpenter while his mother was an interior designer and seamstress. His parents used their hands to create.
“If we wanted a couch, my mother would make a couch from scratch,” he said. In this environment, especially when it would take months to import anything from the U.S., he learned that “if you can’t obtain it, you can create it.”
Feeling restrictions at home and school prompted Iicky to get crafty. His school required him to wear a uniform, and at home he would don a nice shirt and tie to sit at his family’s dinner table. “I couldn’t wear a shirt with the shirttails out,” he said. He then learned to keep tricks up his sleeves — or, more aptly, underneath his jacket.
In college, his uniform and tie would get in the way of working in art class. He stitched together a solution by trimming his uniform to create a slip-on disguise to make him look like he was wearing the full attire. He made a removable piece with a shirt collar and the knot of his tie to fit under his jacket to help him blend in. And in a sense, by manipulating the uniform, he created his own artist costume.
His parents also encouraged his art from a young age — even if he dipped into mischief. Once, he drew a chicken on a mom’s closet wall and proudly called her over to see. When she saw the paint on the walls and on her nice shoes, she got mad. But instead of punishing him, she decided to go to a secondhand store to buy him a book about art, which he still has in his apartment today. Another time, Iicky took his father’s spray cans and his father later noticed, but he ended up encouraging him. His second grade teacher Ms. Allen told him, “I want you and your cousin to stay after class,” so she could give him books and introduce him to artists like Warhol.
Ms. Allen also reminded him that art should be fun.
But by the time he attended Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he also put in a lot of work into his art. He said he worked especially hard on his art then because “I was given the opportunity to move from the Caribbean and I didn’t want to screw up.” Though, he was unaccustomed to being surrounded by other students who got straight A’s.
During his first semester, he sketched out a project for his midterm. But the day before it was due, someone had left a ketchup packet at his desk. When Iicky put his book down, the ketchup exploded all over his piece. He felt crushed. But his dad always said, “if something goes wrong, use that mistake to finish what you started.”
He adopted his father’s advice by using the texture and color of the ketchup to embellish his art. When he turned his midterm in, his professor said, “I saw this happen in class and I thought you were going to give up but you didn’t.” Though thought aloud to himself in retrospect, “to be number one is to not try to be number one.”
That is, he learned the hard way to stop comparing himself to others.
Nowadays, an easel is set up in his apartment and patches of denim litter his kitchen counter. Besides painting in different genres — from oil painting to graffiti art or water color to using recycled materials like mirror shards — Iicky also deconstructs jeans then reassembles the pieces into a Frankenstein-like blend of indigo. For Iicky, art and expression is not just found in the studio or at the easel. He said, “you should be having fun when you go out or walk down the street.”
Both his denim work and many of his paintings mishmash what surrounds him. From mistakes to creating his own clothes, it’s all wabi-sabi to Iicky. Much of his clothing has painting on it and his work riffs on imperfections and subjecting it to change.
When he visited his sister this summer, she told him that their father encouraged Iicky to be who is his no matter what — even if she siblings teased him for his off-kilter style.
His love for denim grew out of Hollywood cowboys and his mother’s Vogue catalogues. To Iicky, and his peers in the Virgin Islands, denim represented America — especially Levi’s, white t-shirts, and Nikes.
But the denim artist didn’t get his first pair of Levi’s until high school when his uncle brought him a pair. He wore twill jeans from his dad until then, but they weren’t the real thing. Thing thing is, if you grew up in the Virgin Islands and wore Levi’s, you’d be asked if you just got back from the U.S. It was status as well as fashion.
His uncle got a pair from the sailors who traveled and would drop shipments in St. Thomas or Antigua, but every once in awhile a package got lost and they’d take it. Iicky said he “didn’t want to fit the tradition, I wanted to manipulate it.” And he grew his jeans collection, he would dye, trim, or stitch the material together for his own personalized style.
And this approach applies to his visual art, too. He’s adept at dissecting the components and styles that add up to an aesthetic. He can even characterize an artist’s style based on his or her clothing choices. (Hockney, who painted with vivid colors, would wear chinos and bright colored socks.)
As much as Iicky talks about self-expression, he also focuses his conversations on self-growth and embracing challenge. He even frames the work that galleries reject to remind him to get better.
And he’ll keep learning. To keep updated about his own art, to learn from his artistic lifestyle, or to see what challenges he’s turning into art, you can check out his Instagram. You can also reach him to buy his custom denim art through his email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
photography: Christopher Brown