A Supernatural Natural
By Gene Fowler
Natural talent has a knack for finding its way to the gallery or stage, especially when it operates in Shakespeare’s context of “all the world.” Many, if not most, of the leathercraft artists I’ve spoken with began drawing or practicing some other form of the visual arts in their youth. It was kind of like breathing for them; it was something they just did.
Rick Valdez, owner of Alchemy Kustom—hand-crafted upholstery, paint, and leather goods—in Odessa, Texas, is an exception. Still in his early thirties, Rick had no idea he possessed the artistic mojo to reinvent automotive exteriors with incredible candy-pearl paint jobs or transform the interiors with one-of-a-kind leather creations until he gave it a whirl.
“I always thought I would go on to college after high school,” he explains, “but I started working in a body shop—I’d always been into hot rods. And I learned how to paint by painting my own car.” But then Rick hurt his back, and during the downtime he wanted to get his car interior reupholstered. “So I called some upholstery shops and when I heard the prices, I thought, Whoa!” Reeling from sticker shock, he decided to sew his own seats.
“I’d always thought sewing was kind of a girl thing, you know; but at the same time, it was always in the back of my head,” he continues. “So I saw an ad on craigslist for a walking-foot sewing machine. It was more than I could pay, but I talked her down to $500, and my dad and I went to pick it up. I learned to do it by watching YouTube videos—I’m a big fan of YouTube how-to’s—and my first upholstery job, on my own car, turned out pretty decent.”
Rick went around to other shops, but no one would hire him. So he went back to the ingenuity shed and opened Alchemy Kustom about four years ago. At first he worked exclusively with vinyl seat covers, using the hog rings method to attach the covers to the foam seat bodies. He started working with leather last year, and now the majority of his upholstery work is in leather.
“I’d always been interested in the craft of leatherwork,” he says. “I loved learning about Italian shoemakers and American bootmakers. There’s a slow-hand magic about it, and I just really enjoy the whole process. And even though leather is more difficult to work with in upholstery, I think it’s worth it.” Rick explains that the trick is not to have any wrinkles in your car’s seat and backrest. “Leather stretches differently,” he adds, “and that makes it tricky.”
Shortly after he began working with leather, he bought the tools and remaining hide stock of a retiring saddlemaker. And at last year’s 29th Annual Boot and Saddlemakers Trade Show in Wichita Falls, Texas, Rick invested $6,000 in sewing machines and other leathercraft equipment. Checking out the creative work on his Instagram account, it’s clear that the investment is paying off.
“Pretty much every leather item I make is something I made first for myself,” he explains. That’s certainly true of the first item I saw, a handsome cigar case. “I’m a cigar enthusiast,” Rick explains, “so that was a natural.” An Instagram photo of a half-dozen wallets he made reveals a deft hand with varied designs. There’s tooling that looks as though it was done by a seasoned master. One wallet has perfectly-incised diamonds darkened with dye. Another shows a faux woodgrain finish that looks like the real thing. All exhibit impeccable stitching. In a separate image, repurposed oil-tanned leather from the damaged seat cover of a Ford King Ranch F350 bears the legendary Texas ranch’s insignia, name and its year of origin, “EST. 1853.” Another King Ranch leather patch adorns a craftsman’s apron.
Explaining an unexpected creation that caught my eye, a leather tailgate chain cover, Rick says, “I got tired of the factory chains scratching my truck’s tailgate so I came up with this solution. And anytime I can do something unique and incorporate leather into a hot rod, it’s a win-win.”
Though he hasn’t tried his hand at bootmaking—yet, Rick has a fine eye (and foot) for boots, as evidenced by a post of the James Leddy pair from his collection. Commenting on the post, the bootmaker Dustin Lauw, who runs Duck’s Heritage Boots in Salado, Texas, wrote, “The man who taught me boot making was friends with James Leddy. He often spoke of James with great fondness and admiration.” I interviewed Dustin’s teacher, the widely-loved bootmaker Duck Menzies, in his shop in Temple, Texas, a few months before his death in 2014. I mention all this because it reflects an appreciation of tradition that Rick is quick to underscore himself. “There’s something about a handcrafted boot,” he says. “And we need younger people to carry on that culture. Though I haven’t made a boot yet, it’s the same kind of thing the whole time I’m making something. It’s like I’m doing my small part to keep tradition alive. We appreciate innovation, but we honor tradition. And I really get excited when other creators like my Instagram posts!”
A neat oxblood tote bag on Rick’s Insty was a gift for his mom; and the denim/leather vest was made first for the artisan himself. One of the images with the richest leather patina is a work he describes as “duffel bag fixin’s.” Beyond cool is an old-school barber chair that Alchemy Kustom sand-blasted, painted and reupholstered with veg-tan leather for Handsome Devil Barber Shop in nearby Midland. Look them up online to see pictures of the chair before its awesome alchemical transformation.
Several of Rick’s leather creations—a wallet, the barber chair footrest, a business card holder and a supercool motorcycle seat—bear the distinctive Eye of Horus, an ancient Egyptian symbol of protection, royal power and good health. “It’s also a big part of who I am and why I named my company Alchemy Kustom,” Rick explains. “Alchemy was the medieval chemical process that, according to myth and legend, turned raw lead into gold. And with the Eye of Horus I take it back to Egyptian times, when few people possessed this secret knowledge. The Egyptian craftsmen made stuff that would last. That’s an important benchmark for me. Do I want to make things that will become obsolete? Or do I want to make something that can be used by generations to come? The very clear answer is in the Eye of Horus.”
Rick Valdez of Alchemy Kustom in Odessa, Texas, is definitely a leather artist to watch, and it will be interesting to see what his creativity conjures up as time rolls on. One of his most recent leather upholstery jobs, though, will be hard to top. A custom hand-stitched automotive bench seat, made from thick six-ounce, veg-tanned leather was created….drumroll….especially for this article. “This one was time consuming,” Rick confided to his Instagram posse of colleagues.
And the Insty community responded with digital hosannas. “Absolutely stunning!” applauded @creator_of_things. “Gorgeous!” gushed @gonerogueonline. “Insane! Killer work man,” testified @porrittleather. “You bad bro,” complimented @_mendoza_51_. “So dope as is everything you do,” added @paint_by_scrappy. “Man your fingers must be tired from all that stitching! Looks awesome!” clicked @skidrowspeedandcustom. “That’s really really nice,” deemed @spirit_leather_official. “Thanks brother! It means a lot coming from you!!” replied @alchemykustom.
“Oh my goodness!!!” exclaimed @2aleatherworks. “I’ve wanted to do something like this for so long. Thank you for putting an actual visual in my head. Now I want to do it even more!!! Awesome job! Curious as to what the biggest hurdle was on this project.”
“I would say the biggest hurdle would be sewing everything together and allowing for shrinking of the leather with hand-stitching allowance,” answered Rick / @alchemykustom. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out. It’s more time than anything.”
Time. More time than anything. And what is time? An ocean of moments. A galaxy of grains of sand. “You’ll figure it out.” It’s alchemy. Kustom.