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Another Great Show in Philly!

How Dutch can you get?

Tulips, bicycles, and windmills carried out the Dutch theme at the PHS Flower Show in Philly.

Can’t believe that a month has gone by since we turned out the lights on our ninth Pennsylvania Horticulture Society Flower Show in Philadelphia.  And what a show it was!  With the theme, “Holland” it was a delight to behold, the exhibitors displaying a wonderous array of tulips, bicycles, and windmills of course, but also paying clever homage to Mondrian and his primary colored squares. Additionally, there were lovely floral tributes to other heavy-hitting Dutch artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Rembrandt Van Rijn.

It is such fun to meet new customers and see their appreciation for Haitian metal art grow as they come to understand that the pieces are all

Modern art at the Philly Flower Show

Mondrian flower boxes. How bright and clever!

made by hand out of recycled oil barrels.   It is also wonderful to visit with old friends who come to the show year after year.  Always love hearing, “We always look forward to seeing you.  We buy something every time!”

Perhaps it is here that we should stop a moment to express our heartfelt gratitude to all of our terrific customers – newcomers and long-time, loyal friends – for supporting

our fair trade efforts in Haiti.  The artists work hard to produce amazing pieces of art, and we work hard to make it available, but it is YOU who commit your dollars, bring the art into your homes, and enthusiastically share it with others.  That’s what make those efforts count. Together, we do so much good.  THANK YOU!

Watching a video of how Haitian metal art is made

Casey pointing out the video we had running in our booth showing how the art is made.

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


Celtic Dragons, Druids, and the Ley of the Land

 

Celtic inspired dragon with tail worked into a trinity knotCeltic inspired dragon with infinity knot

Wiseton Brutus has done it again. His Celtic-inspired designs of crosses and claddaughs are wonderful. (And have, incidentally, been selling like hotcakes!) They are his Haitian homage to familiar and ancient symbols of of Ireland; their classic forms embellished with intricate knot designs typical of the Celtic tradition.

And now:  Enter the dragon! A powerful image, fearsome yet charismatic. It is difficult not to be drawn to its aura of mystery and magic. Wiseton has made two, both unmistakably Celtic, with distinctive interlocking knots front and center.

In medieval Ireland, the dragon was thought to have been the First Being, a seed born of the Earth and fertilized by the Sea and Sky. From this union, the dragon sprung forth, a supernatural creature that held the secrets of the universe. Where it walked, a pathway of cosmic energy remained. Druids were Celtic “seers,” capable of finding these pathways, which were known as leys. In fact, the modern phrase, “getting the lay of the land,” is derived from the ancient practice of Druids looking for the “ley of the land.” With their ability to see the ley left in the wake of a dragon’s footsteps, they could reveal those places which had been cosmically “energized,” and designate them for temples, monuments, and festivals.

Later, when Celtic Ireland became Christianized, the dragon assumed the persona of Satan. A serious reversal of roles, the dragon was thenceforward regarded as a formidable foe to be vanquished. Saints, kings, and knights alike threw their righteous might against the forces of that Evil so that Peace, Justice, and Holiness would prevail.

Maybe you thought a Celtic dragon was merely cool…

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


“But My Walls Aren’t Lime Green!”

 

 

Fast-action Casey kept the booth constantly supplied with fresh metal.

Bright colors characterize our booth displays. 

 

 

Many of you have been in our booth at shows, fairs, etc. and as you well know, it’s colorful! While those flat panels and fabric drops in bold colors are eye-catching and help us stand out in the crowd, not everyone decorates that way. In fact, neutrals and muted tones are far more typical. Not only that, wall textures are often anything but flat. Hence the very reasonable question: How will this piece of Haitian artwork look at MY house on MY walls? To which my response will pretty much always be, “Why great, of course!”  But you don’t have to simply take my word for it.  Let me show you…

You’ll see here that I have placed our SM401 “Hummingbird to the Sunflower” design against a variety of backgrounds. Just as our Haitian metal sculptures adapt well in a number of decorating schemes, they also are inherently versatile against a wide range of colors and textures. See what I mean? And you aren’t even limited to hanging it on a wall.  You could stand it up in a window, as in the bottom right photo. Or lean it on a shelf. Or hang it on a fence…You are limited only by your creativity and imagination – and certainly not by color and texture.  Display away!

Haitian Metal Humming birdHaitian metal art in a grouping (640x640)Recycled metal art on stoneHaitian Art in the window)

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


Just Add Birds

Sometimes, when I am helping customers shop our metal sculptures, they comment on how they like the movement of this piece or that. Being

Metal sculpture by Julio Balan

Tree of Life sculpture by Julio Balan (RND253)

a “word person” I always think that sounds funny. In the literal sense it defies logic, yet I know that they are quite right. The image is static, but it feels otherwise. In fact, many of our Haitian metal art pieces are suggestive of movement. Take for example our various trees of life. In the example to the left here, the design elements of the birds’ outstretched wings, the gently bowed trunk of the tree and its curved branches all work together to form an illusion of growth, wind and flight. The implication of activity is clear.

That illusion can be further carried out by adding a few small birds to form a wall grouping. The individual sculptures can easily be arranged to

compose a scene which implies movement and much more. When taken as a whole, the birds in flight and the tree now tell a story: The sun is sinking below the horizon. As darkness descends, birds wing homeward, settling softly into the tree for a night of rest. The caressing

birds plus tree of life sculpture

A couple of birds hung in place near the tree become a wall grouping, Together, they create a greater illusion of movement.

branches provide safe haven until morning dawns.

Okay, that may be a little flowery, but you get the idea. You’ve got your Tree of Life. Maybe you’ve had it for a while and you want to give it a new look, extend the movement, and tell a larger story. The solution is simple: Just add birds!

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

tree of life with birds and more birds

Now you’ve got a story!


A Beautiful Tree and a Great Book (With a Haitian Connection) to Read Underneath

Tree of life Haitian metal art

The shade of a beautiful tree is the perfect place to relax with book. Tree of Life by Wilson Etienne.

A beautiful tree and here’s a suggestion for the book to read underneath: “Black Count” by Tom Reiss. A page-turning biography, Reiss says he likes to think of the central figure as history’s greatest underdog. His book introduces readers to General Alex Dumas, the man that inspired so many fictional heroes of 19th century French literature, among them Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D’Artagnan, of “The Three Musketeers,” and most closely, Edmund Dantes of “The Count of Monte Cristo.”  These characters of derring-do sprung from the creative mind of the real son of the real “Black Count,” novelist Alexandre Dumas.

“Alex Dumas was a black man, sold into slavery in Haiti as a child, who eventually rose higher than any black man ever rose in a white society before our own time,” Reiss asserted in an NPR interview in 2012. “He became a four-star general 200 years ago, at the height of slavery.”  This achievement almost defies comprehension, given that slaves in the French Caribbean colonies were appallingly mistreated and had an average survival expectancy of only 10 years.

 

Reading "Black Count," by Tom Reiss under a tree

To read under your tree, may I suggest The Black Count.  Art and literature, two of life’s great pleasures! 

The product of a union between the ne’er-do-well son of a white French marquis and a black slave woman, little Alex grew up on a small coffee plantation that his father had purchased in southern Haiti.  He lived rather ordinarily, much as any boy of the colony would, playing in the jungles, fishing and exploring until about the age of 12 when his father abruptly sold him into slavery.  Alex’ grandfather in France had just died, and his terminally cash-strapped father need money to pay for his own passage to France, where he could claim his title, inheritance, and lands.

Interestingly, once Alex’ father’s inheritance was secured, he sent for the boy through a repurchase agreement with the owner.  After 2 years of enslavement, Alex sailed for France, the passenger docket listing him simply as, “the slave, Alexandre.”  The timing was perfect.  With the rallying cry in France growing ever louder, “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite!” young Alex was welcomed into French society and provided with the best educational opportunities.  He also learned war-craft, becoming an excellent marksman, swordsman, and equestrian. As an adult, Alex embraced the ideals of the dawning Revolution and took up its cause.  His rise coincided with that of another young general of considerable talent:  Napoleon Bonaparte.

General Bonaparte was more than aware of Dumas’ capable leadership, physical presence, and bravery in battle, and quickly came to regard him with adversarial jealousy. During the French army’s Egyptian campaign, Dumas and Napoleon’s rivalry intensified and the two clashed in a very public ideological disagreement. At that point, Napoleon’s jealousy evolved to a dangerous and vengeful hatred. On their way back to France, Dumas’ ship was diverted in a storm.  He was kidnapped under mysterious circumstances and held for ransom, which Napoleon conveniently ignored. Dumas was eventually thrown into a fortress dungeon and forgotten.

Does it get more swash-buckling than that?  Want to know what happens next?  I’ve got two words for you:  Read it!

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


Our New Video

Hands at work in the creative process

Chalking the design onto the metal is one step in the process of creating metal art.

During our last trip to Haiti in October, we brought along our favorite filmmaker, Mary Ragsdale, to capture “our Haiti” on video and enable us to share the experience with you.  After long hours of shooting and even longer hours of editing, she has come through for us in a big way.  We are so pleased!

Set to an a cappella Haitian folk tune, the film opens with a stroll down the main street of Croix-des-Bouquets.  A counter-melody to the song is the unmistakable syncopation of hammers ringing out against steel. From the street, the viewer is lead into several of the artist’s workshops and introduced to the artists themselves by our business partner, Roody Soulouque.  Inside the shops, sculptures hang in wondrous array and the artists demonstrate the skill of their craft. Watch and see how the designs are drawn with chalk pencils onto the metal, then cut with chisels, sanded smooth, and finished with a weather-coating.

IMG_9168 (640x640)

In the video, Roody Soulouque translates for Bernard Excellent, as Bernard tells the story behind, “Mermaid Talking with Fish.”

Maybe you’ve been around us long enough to know the story of the artistic process. You’ve seen our photos at shows and in pamphlets and information cards. Maybe you have it all perfectly focused in your mind’s eye. But there is a story within the story.  Notice the smaller details captured by Mary’s lens: the warm greetings, the easy smiles, and above all, notice the pride.  As one of the artists, Jean Claude Soulouque, says as he holds up his one of his best-selling sculptures, “I have seen this.  I have seen it.  It is from my ancient fathers, and that is what I do.” It is the family business, handed down from one generation to the next for nearly 60 years.

And did you see all of the collared shirts on the men?  Mary captured those as well; clean, pressed, and hastily pulled on just as we arrive. Probably their best shirts, likely reserved for occasions of note. Best foot forward.  That too, is pride.

IMG_9254 (640x640) Casey among the barrels

It all starts with a 55-gallon oil drum…

At risk of saying it one too many times, It’s Cactus is about giving opportunity.  Enabling our artists to earn their way, to provide for their families, to be successful, and to take pride in what they do.  Mary captured that pride.  Look for it in the video and be proud too, that your purchases make a positive impact.  It is a pride we can see and pride we can share.

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


Shop Amazon for Savings on It’s Cactus Haitian Metal

Haitian Metal sculptor, Jean Claude Soulouque with his recycled metal art.

Jean Claude Soulouque holding his “Cross with Milagros inside his workshop in Croix-des-Bouquets.

As most of you are well aware, It’s Cactus’ reason for being is to fight poverty with art.  We pursue a market-based solution to uplifting lives and improving economic rnd330__53239.1430492501.100.100security for our artists, their families, and their communities.  We’ve been dedicated to that purpose for over 20 years and we’ve been doing it at various times through physical storefronts, retail and wholesale shows, and building a strong online presence.  This includes not only marketing on our own It’s Cactus website, but also on social media, such as Facebook and Pinterest, as well as on retail sales sites like ebay, etsy, and the retail mega-giant, Amazon.winged_heart_with_bird__45644.1439168484.100.100

“Why Amazon?” you may ask. “Isn’t that kind of like bargaining with the Devil? Aren’t you in competition with yourself that way?” The answer to these questions lies in the numbers.  According to Michael Hayes of “Shopify,” Amazon lands 85 million unique monthly visitors.  Another source tells us that 44% of online shoppers go to Amazon first when looking for goods.  In other words, while a new customer may find us on garden_butterflies__07942.1439228030.100.100Amazon and make his/her first purchase through Amazon, we have the opportunity to win that customer through giving them a wonderful product, providing excellent service and fulfillment, and have the chance to introduce ourselves and our own company to them.  It’s a chance we can’t afford to miss and more importantly, it’s a chance we don’t want our artists to miss.  Giving them the greatest opportunity to sell their art is why we are in business.
SO…strange as it may seem, I am encouraging you to shop Amazon now through Feb. 15th for It’s Cactus products.  It’s a great time to do it! It will happen only twice per year; now and again in August.  Amazon works with us to determine how much SM181B__01835.1453512105.100.100product to ship to their fulfillment centers and, for a set amount of time, those products are stored for distribution there for free. However knowing exactly how much will sell lies somewhere between math and magic.  Rather than pay for having the goods returned to us after the specified time has passed, we’d rather have a sale and enjoy our customers reaping the benefit of 40% off our regularly priced pieces of terrific Haitian metal art.
Below is a list of links to all of the products that we are selling at the reduced rate.  Just enter promo code “Cactus4U” at checkout and score the discount!  BUT, we would so appreciate it if you would take the time to give your new and wonderful sculpture a star rating when you have received it.  Marketing research by “Big Commerce” shows that 92% of customers across the board rely on product reviews when making their purchase decisions.  What these product reviews mean for our artists, is that their work is something to get excited about.  That excitement translates directly to their increased sales and greater economic security.
Ready to join us in fighting poverty with art?  Shop the sale, rate your product with (lots of!) stars, and know that you are fighting the good fight!
Sweet Summer Angel                            Spring Garden Flock of Birds
Tree Sculpture with Birds                       Garden Butterflies
Angel Playing the Horn                          Cross with Birds
Birds in Flight                                       Metal Sun
Spring Garden Tree                               Garden Flowers
Cross with Milagros                               Little Mermaid Under the Sea
Angel with Attitude                               Sea Turtle
Garden Birds and Sun                           Garden Tree with Birds
Moon and Sun                                      Heart with Wings Set
Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Can Chocolate Cure Poverty?

Haitian cacao farmer from the north

Cacao Farmer. (Photo courtesy of Askanya)

In a previous blog, I declared my deep and abiding love of chocolate. I have written too, about market-based solutions to the problem of poverty in Haiti. Can you imagine my delight at coming across a company that has both!

Les Chocolateries Askanya is the brain-child of Corinne Joachim Sanon, a Haitian-American woman, who decided she wanted to do something meaningful and sustainable to fight poverty in Haiti. In November 2014, with fresh MBA from Wharton and indomitable entrepreneurial spirit, she put her energies into producing fine chocolates. The business concept is her driving force: “Haiti’s first and only premier bean-to-bar chocolate

This is how cacao grows

Cacao pod (Photo courtesy of Askanya)

company. Grown in Haiti, Made in Haiti, Enjoyed Everywhere.”

Corinne, her husband Andreas Symietz, and friend Alexandra Lecorps and went to work transforming her grandfather’s four-bedroom country home in Ouananminthe in northern Haiti into a full-production chocolate factory. By April 2015, the factory swung into action with seven full-time local employees. Another friend, Gentile Senat  also entered the chocolate-making scene. Sourcing locally grown cacao from area farmers, the factory workers receive the freshly harvested beans and begin their magic. The cacao is fermented, dried, sorted and then the delicate matter of roasting begins. From there, the roasted beans are cracked, ground, winnowed, and finally refined. At this stage, the making of chocolate bars actually begins. (See great photos of this process on Askanya’s website.)

Though Askanya sells in Haiti and abroad, its first customer is the Haitian people. Catering to a Haitian palate, which generally prefers a

Haitian metal art

Haitian metal version of a farmer at work by Johnson Cajuste.

sweeter, less bitter flavor, they produce a 40% milk chocolate bar and a 60% dark chocolate bar and have plans to develop other flavors with 70% in the works. I am happy to report that the dark chocolate that I ordered from Askanya for my family was very enthusiastically received. I don’t pretend to describe flavors well, but I think I detected some fruity notes (Cherry, maybe?) and the overall taste and texture were delightful.

It is exciting to meet people such as Corinne, with visions so similar to that of It’s Cactus for fighting poverty and uplifting lives. By providing opportunity and employment, by teaching skills – whether they be quality management, marketing, or chocolate-making – and by treating trading partners with respect and care, real growth and prosperity can be achieved.

Hang up the art and pass the chocolate!

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


In the News: Haitian Presidential Elections

Haitian women stroll past an array of political ads in Port-au-Prince

Despite political uncertainties, life goes on in Port-au-Prince

A couple of months ago, I wrote about Haiti’s presidential elections, saying among other things that the top two vote-getters in the primary elections, Jude Celestin and Jovenel Moise, would be participating in run-off elections to be held on Dec. 27th. This is not quite the way it’s worked out. To be blunt, it has become quite a mess, but I will try to give it to you here in a nutshell…

Jude Celestin, the candidate with the second-most votes, has charged that the Oct. primary elections were fraudlent and declared that he would not participate in any run-off unless his conditions were met. All six pages of them. Among his complaints is that the membership of the CEP – Haiti’s version of our Electoral College – is selected in dubious fashion and thereby has no credibility in decision-making for either the primary or the run-off elections. A government-appointed investigative commission looked into Celestin’s fradulency claims and it too discredited the elections, citing a sky-high number of voting “irregularities” and presumption of fraud. The Commission echoed Celestin’s call for sweeping changes in the electoral machinery to include the CEP.

Yet another group, called the G-8 and composed of several presidential candidates from primary race that didn’t qualify for the run-offs, publicly bashed the Commission’s findings. G-8 says that while the Commission verified voting irregularities, it did not identify the beneficiary of those irregularities. In other words, the losing candidates are questioning whether or not they actually lost. Good point. Are you confused yet? Wait, there’s more!

Heart sculpture by Joubert Brutus

Heart sculpture symbolizing a wish for peace and love in Haiti.

The December 27th run-off election date was postponed so that these investigations could be carried out. Two weeks ago, a January 24th run-off date was put forward by the (possibly slimy) members of the CEP. Outside observers are now pressuring the Haitian government to go through with the elections on that date with or without Celestin. The problem there is that Jovenel Moise, the government-backed candidate, might be the only one running. If no president is elected and installed, “in peaceful transfer of power,” by February 7th, it will become necessary for a provisional government to be formed in accordance with Haitian constitutional law. That’s what has the outside observers worried, of course.

Not surprisingly, Haitians are taking to the streets en masse in protest. The Associated Press interviewed one of the protesters, Ernest Casseus, an unemployed 57-year-old from a neighborhood of concrete shacks and trash-strewn streets. Casseus insisted that the runoff should be postponed to protect democracy in Haiti, saying rather succinctly, “It’s like a football game: You need two teams to play or you have no finals. A presidential election with one candidate is crazy and will only result in chaos,”

Stay tuned.

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


Could you read that to me in Kreyol?

Haitian schoolgirls on their way home after classes.

Uniformed schoolgirls ready to head home after a day of classes in Port-au-Prince.

Just before Christmas, I received a box from It’s Cactus containing a set of large sculptures I had bought while we were in Haiti in October. Usually when I receive an order, it is pulled from the warehouse shelves in Salinas, CA, packed, and sent on its way. This time, however, I had made my order in Croix-des-Bouquets and it was boxed in Haiti separately from the rest of the It’s Cactus merchandise. When It’s Cactus received the shipment, my box was separated out and sent directly to me without any re-packing. I received it just as it had been packaged up in Haiti.

I am telling you this because of the “surprise” I found inside: My sculptures had been wrapped very thoroughly and carefully in French lessons. Used up pages from French language workbooks; brought home, no doubt, by the artist’s school children who no longer had need of them. Waste not, want not.

It reminded me of something rather astonishing that I had learned on one of our previous trips that has only recently been changed. Up until July 2015, Haitian school children were taught exclusively in French. This, while the language of their country is Kreyol. According to one set of

French language workbook pages make good packing material.

Wrap mine up in Kreyol!

figures I read, (and you can too) about 1 Haitian in 19 is fluent in French, yet all lessons, from reading to math to science were taught in the French language, oftentimes by teachers who were not among the fluent. Can you even imagine the obstacle this was to a child’s ability to learn? Can you imagine the enormity of the educational handicap when it was applied to an entire nation?

Reading comprehension is based on three things: the representation of letters, the corresponding sounds the letters make, and the meaning of the the collected letters that form words. A child who is unskilled in his own language and taught exclusively in another one may parrot the words that he hears correctly with no real understanding of what he has said. This is compounded in the case of a Haitian child due to the relative closeness of the sound of Kreyol words to French and the large disparity in their meaning. The upshot of all of this is that Haitian Kreyol-speaking children who have been taught only in French have had an incredibly hard time with reading comprehension and corresponding difficulty in reading to learn.

Happily, change is in the air. The new government mandate seeks to promote Haitian Kreyol throughout all levels of education, from kindergarten to university. It entails the standardization of Kreyòl writing, and the training of teachers for instruction of, and in, Kreyòl. Studies clearly demonstrate that children who receive a solid foundation in their native tongue are “set free” to learn not only reading, math and sciences, but second and even third languages as well.

Of course, the larger goal is to elevate the level of education of the population as a whole. Though it will take time, the reward should be greatly worth the government’s investment. With higher levels of skill in reading, math, sciences, and foreign languages, new generations of Haitian students will be able to realize their full potential as productive citizens of an emerging country. As for myself, I hope that maybe my next box from Croix-des-Bouquets will be packed in Kreyol lessons. I would take that as not only a sign of progress but also a sign of the Haitian government’s commitment to the success of the program. Used up Kreyol workbook packing paper – bring it on!

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

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