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Caribbean artist strives to bring representation to community

January 15, 2016
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Erick Picardo
Dominican Republic native Erick Picardo is addressing the lack of artistic representation for West Michigan’s Caribbean community. Courtesy Erick Picardo

Erick Picardo is both a successful and struggling artist in Grand Rapids.

Picardo, who’s originally from the Dominican Republic and has been in Grand Rapids since 2001, is a creative professional striving to plant Caribbean art roots in the city. That’s the struggling part.

As an artist, Picardo has participated in a number of local arts events, including the Folkloric and Traditional Afro Caribbean Dance, UICA’s Live Coverage, the Creston Neighborhood Association’s Art Battle for Community, ArtPrize, Avenue for the Arts and others. That’s the successful part.

As a leader in the arts community, he’s served with a number of initiatives seeking to address the lack of artistic representation for West Michigan’s Caribbean community.

Picardo’s been behind a number of organizations with this mission, especially as CEO of The Caribbean Coalition for Arts and Culture. The nonprofit organization supports the GR Latin Music Awards, which was held last April at LINC Community Revitalization, and The Caribbean Art Festival, which features visual arts and poetry, he said.

“The Caribbean Coalition for the Arts and Culture started as a group of Caribbean people sharing and having ideas in common in 2009. We used to have a meeting once a month in my house when we started. … Here you will find people from Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican, Puerto Rico and Cuba,” he said.

“I dropped the Caribbean Art Festival on the table, and they approved. St. Cecilia Music Center was the venue in downtown for us. We had this beautiful event for three years in a row — very successful. Later, I looked over and I thought that I can do more.”

“Right know I am polishing ideas and working on a new project because I want to introduce a package of a workshop and art and a cultural program. Cultural preservation is one of my goals because a large percentage of our kids don’t know anything about Latino culture. This (program) will offer a unique perspective that will help minority students to find their own voices … and promote friendly awareness of the Hispanic/Latino and Caribbean cultural presence in West Michigan”

Art has been a part of Picardo’s life since he was a small child. He said it was fun and a way to be popular in school and help people with their homework. But as he got older, he fell in love with art.

“Art was the last thing to think about choosing as a formal career. Actually, art was a tool to promote social changes in the Caribbean. … My father was the financial support in this process; however, he did not want me to become an artist. He was pushing me to become a doctor or an attorney because he was concerned about the future, financially,” he said.

“My mother was OK with me being an artist. She was a good nurse for 35 years in a public hospital in the DR; also a crafter — a good crafter, actually. It was a way to have extra income.”

Picardo studied visual art and graphic design at the Universidad Autonoma De Santo Domingo, graduating in 1995. He worked as art director for a nonprofit in the Dominican Republic before moving to New York with his family, and eventually to Grand Rapids. For years he struggled to define his style of art, but then he found his stride.

“It was a little hard to define my art style. At the beginning, I believe I jumped and ran around with different art ideas. I guess that happens with all of us,” he said.

“For the first few years, it was overwhelming. The process to learn how to adapt and also to find a way on my own to promote my work, to market and manage an art businesses with the right tools, was frustrating. But on the other hand, I learned a lot. The artistic community is big now compared to 10 years ago.”

Picardo, whose business is called PICARDOArt, is looking for a new location for his dance and art studio, called Vozzae Studio.

“I am working as an artist full time. This is an up and down businesses — sometimes things are going well, sometimes nothing is going on — and there aren’t sales or financial support for upcoming projects,” he said. “In order to keep the ball rolling, I have to come up with some ideas, new projects.”

Race is a unique factor in his art. Picardo said he gets labeled as Hispanic, although he prefers to be considered “Latino, Afro-Latino,” or even “Afro-Caribbean,” pointing to where he comes from.

West Michigan is a beautiful place that inspires an artist, he said, but there are still problems the culture needs to work on, particularly with diversity.

“I love lakes. I love the colorful landscapes that help me feel alive and blessed. I want to include those things that seem unnoticed sometimes. Now, if I talk about what West Michigan offers to me as an artist of color, it might be a little hard to understand. … There are not too many opportunities for us,” he said.

“One of the hardest parts of being an artist is to be separate from others because of skin color, because of religious beliefs, because of cultural background. Ironically, Grand Rapids is well known as Furniture City, also for the world’s biggest, open art competition — ArtPrize, and the home of the most visited museum. Living here, it has been a challenge, and I take the challenge to be better and to work hard.”

Another challenge to art has been the influx of technology, but that doesn’t mean art is becoming less relevant, Picardo said.

“I think the process to produce or work on an art project is proven to improve your productivity. The traditional art expression is going to be always a gift. I find a pride in this wonderful process. The arts are not dying because of technology or the rise of the digital age.”

At the end of the day, Picardo hopes to create a space in West Michigan for artists who want to create.

“I believe that art in society plays a very important role. I got the golden opportunity to develop a few arts projects with kids, for example, through the public schools and some local nonprofit organizations and churches, like the Hispanic Center, LINC Community Revitalization, Girl Scouts and the Cook Art Center, among others. Also, I have been promoting Latino and Caribbean arts culture by hosting a few different events,” he said.

“The budget for art in West Michigan is zero. We all know that. However, I truly believe in the importance of art in the educational process.”

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