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Busting Fair Trade Myths

Weather-proofing metal art from HaitiIt’s Cactus, we are happy to report, has recently been re-certified by the Fair Trade Federation for another year. The Fair Trade Federation requires that participating businesses conform to strict guidelines and verification requires a huge amount of effort annually, including a mountain data entry and submitting another mountain of online forms. However, it is important to us that we are recognized as being in compliance, and we “wear” our certification proudly. We know that many people prefer to purchase Fair Trade products – we do too! We also know that many people are not clear about the meaning of Fair Trade, and that many misconceptions surround its meaning. With that in mind, here are a few of myths that need busting:

Fair Trade is a fancy phrase for charity. Charity is a hand-out. Fair Trade is a hand up. Both have their purposes. Charity is an excellent short-term solution for many problems. Responses to natural disasters, for instance, are perfect targets for charitable giving. Charity is not, however, a long-term solution for perpetual poverty. in fact, it can have the completely undesirable consequence of creating perpetual dependency. In order to rise above dire economic straits, people need to help themselves, and that is where Fair Trade comes in. By treating producers as trading partners, by according them dignity and respect, by allowing them to participate in profit-earning, by leveling the playing field so that they can compete in the marketplace, Fair Trade practice offers the hand up that leads producers, ultimately, to being able to stand proudly on their own two feet.

Latin American textiles are made according to centuries of traditionFair Trade takes jobs away from Americans. In this political climate where “Making America Great Again” is a heavily-favored populist theme, it is important to demonstrate that Fair Trade is not crippling America’s workforce. In most cases, Fair Trade products, whether they are agricultural – such as cocoa and coffee – or artisanal – such as our metal sculptures from Haiti – are not, nor have they ever been produced in the US. They are unique to the countries from which they originate, often following years of indigenous tradition, and they are products desired by US consumers in part because of their exotic quality. There has always been a market in the US for imported goods; indeed it is folly to think that America can or should produce everything under the sun. American jobs are not being destroyed or “moved overseas” as a result of Fair Trade. These are jobs that were never here in the first place.

Fair Trade products are simple craft items that anyone could make. Not true! Particularly when applied to folk art items. Our marvelous Latin American textiles are excellent examples. These are handmade pieces that follow generation upon generation of tradition. Many of the centuries-old patterns worked into these textiles represent very specific origins, with mystical elements that might escape the first glance of an untrained eye. The artist starts  training as a young child and it takes years to attain mastery. Though the work may be unrefined, it is in no way “simple.”

Friends of ours, “Fair Trade Winds” have a terrific website that explains all of this and more. Scroll down to the bottom of their homepage and click on anything under the category “Learn.” They provide a wealth of information, and demonstrate through beautiful photos and words why Fair Trade is a wonderful thing!

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


Haitian Iron at a Celtic Fest

Working at the Celtic Festival

Gigi and Casey. Ready to go to work at the Celtic Festival in Bethlehem, PA

Late last month, Gigi and Casey ran the It’s Cactus booth at the Celtic Festival in Bethlehem, PA.  Though they have done countless shows together in the past, this one was special.  For one thing, it was the debut of Haitian metal sculpture among all things Celtic.  Strange, you say? Well, maybe. And then again, maybe not.

Our artists have been working on Celtic designs for over two years now.  Celtic symbolism translates easily into much of their work.  The Celtic Tree of Life, for example, has “infinity knots” worked into its roots and branches.  And how appropriate that the Tree of Life symbolizes the infinite cycle of death and rebirth, while knots themselves represent a bond, just as the Tree that binds the Heavens and Earth below.

It turned out that the Celtic Tree of Life, as well as our Celtic Crosses, were great hits! And though they are quite marvelous, we were surprised how fast the dragonflies “flew.” out of the booth. We had no idea that in Celtic lore, dragonflies are believed to once have been dragons.  Following their metamorphosis into dragonflies, they belong to the faerie folk. Dragonflies are thereby strong emblems of change. Further, their skittering across water indicates that, in life, one needs to not look only at the surface of things, but also to look deeper to find greater truth and meaning.

Additionally, there were requests among the patrons for other things of Celtic imagery.  Birds, and particularly ravens were mentioned

Guys in kilts at the Celtic Festival

They are the real deal! Kilt-wearing patrons at the booth.

time and again.  According to Celtic tradition, ravens are seers, favorites of the Celtic gods and goddesses, and are often linked to a warrior’s death in battle.  It is even said that King Arthur, (Yes, I know, he’s Welsh, but that fits under the Celtic umbrella, along with the Bretons, Cornish, and Gaels.) receiving a mortal wound at the Battle of Camlann  turned into a raven and flew away to Avalon. To bring the idea full circle, ravens in the voodoo culture of Haiti symbolize the divinity of Man.

Ravens then, demonstrably worthy, are on the radar. It takes time, though, to go from concept to product.  Drawings will be exchanged between Casey and our artists in Haiti. From those drawings, several  prototype sculptures will be made.  Several months may pass before the right combination of design and execution is reached, but when success is achieved, the artist will receive his order.  Weeks later, we’ll get the first peek of the new sculptures at the warehouse in Salinas.

Celtic designs in Haitian metal?  Not so strange as it sounds.  They are a perfect fit!

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


Travel Tips: Antigua, Guatemala

Traveling to Guatemala is nothing new to Casey and her family.  Casey and her mom, Gigi have been going on buying trips since the 1990’s, Casey and her husband, Brian got married there in 2001, and daughter Georgie took her first trip at the tender age of 3 months. I think you could call them seasoned!  But every trip is an opportunity for discovery and this one was no exception.  In addition to buying handcrafted folk art items for the online shop, they attended the wedding of a friend, and set about building upon the Spanish language skills of now teen-aged Georgie and her cousin, Quinn. The discoveries came in the form of finding an outstanding driver/guide to Antigua named Carlos, and an equally outstanding language/cultural instructor, Ruth.

Carlos Mijangos is a enterprising Guatemalan man, proud of and passionate about his country.  He worked as a bi-lingual guide for a large company for several years, but with the encouragement of his father, struck out on his own at the age of 40.  Carlos offers custom tours for individuals and groups in his large, comfortable van.  When asked how many the van could hold, Casey replied, “Well it held me, my mother, the girls, and lots and LOTS of boxes of wood carvings and textiles.  And we all fit!” Based in Antigua, Carlos provides transfers to and from the airport, tours around Antigua and vicinity, as well as excursions further afield.  His knowledge base is as impressive as his fluency in English. Additionally, he is “as trustworthy as the day is long.” To learn more, go to his website http://guatemalanguide.com/ If you are planning a trip to Guatemala, it would be wise to book well in advance.  The word is out:  This guy is good!

As for language instruction, Ruth Acabal Reyes has no match. With ten years of experience teaching Spanish to learners of every stripe, she has her methods down. Not only does she offer personalized instruction in Guatemala, she also offers lessons via Skype.  While both methods are effective, says Casey, “You can’t beat learning Spanish on the street. Ruth came to the hotel every day and took the girls out to practice.  She got them to learn the language by using it in real-life situations. Shopping, eating, asking directions – when you have to speak in another language, you find a way.” Ruth, too has her own website loaded with information.  If you have the slightest interest in Spanish language acquisition, Ruth is just the instructor you need to get you on your way. http://ruht.weebly.com/

 

Contrubuted by Linda for It’s Cactus

 


That’s Ocumicho For You

Ocumicho figureOcumicho pottery is often an acquired taste.  At first blush, you might even call it weird.  It is brightly colored, executed in child-like form, but with a baudy and absurd humor about it. It is irreverent, poking fun at everything from sex and death, to religion and politics. Yet once you get it, YOU GET IT.  Moreover, it gets you. One day, almost without warning, it comes home with you and you find it on your display shelf, front and center.

The art form originated in the small, dusty Michoacan village of Ocumicho, where pottery of a very conventional sort was made and sold by the women who lived there.  However, in the 1950’s a man by the name of Marcelino Vicente put the Ocumicho pottery tradition on it’s ear.  Instead of whimsical whistles and tidy little coin banks to sell to tourists, Vicente created wild figural tableaux, populated with devils, demons, and monsters of every stripe. The citizenry was appalled, but his work sold like hotcakes in the local markets. Eventually, he was “discovered,” by Francisco Mendoza, who worked for a government-sponsored art agency that specialized in encouraging folk artists and providing them wider access to large markets beyond their own villages.  Mendoza gave Vicente his own gallery show in Mexico City and his distinctive Ocumicho sculptures got on the radar of collectors at home and abroad. A modest prosperity followed.

His success, however, came at a very high price. Not only was his art the object of jealousy within the village, the artist himself engendered controversy.  Ocumicho was a very conservative, tradition-bound place, and Marcelino Vicente was anything but.  His biographers have described him as a flamboyant cross-dresser, a homosexual, an unabashed narcissist, and an alcoholic. He became the victim of local thugs, who found him drinking alone in a bar late one evening and beat him savagely to death in 1968.

Fortunately, his artistic vision didn’t die with him in the bar that night.  Coming from a large family, there are still plenty of relatives to keep his creative spirit alive and growing. Starting with locally harvested clays which have been painstakingly sifted to remove impurities, artists create their sculptures by hand, carefully molding and shaping the clay into devils, mermaids, soldiers, angels and beasts, who engage in activities ranging from dining at the Last Supper to flying helicopters. The sculptures are smoothed with a wet stone and then left to dry naturally, first in the shade, and later under the intense heat of full sun.  Next, they are low-fired in circular kilns, and when cooled, are painted in rich, bright colors.

As humorously endearing as these sculptural scenes are, they are also very fragile. Great care must be taken in packing and shipping to minimize the risk of damage as much as possible. In consequence, those costs are necessarily high for us and for the end purchasers as well. It’s almost crazy to import and sell them at all, but then again, love makes us do crazy things. Are you crazy too?

Ocumicho bar scene pottery sculpture  Detail of Ocumicho multi-figure tableaux

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


How Much Money Goes Back to the Artists?

Casey, the indispensable Franz, and Jean Rony in Jean’s workshop. Discussions in progress!

If we’ve heard that question once, we’ve heard it a thousand times.  And it’s a good one. The quick response is, “None goes back, because we pay 100 percent up front. They get paid first.” But that isn’t really a complete or direct answer, is it? (Yeah, I know, I kind of dodged it.) Still, it’s a hard question to answer because there isn’t one “absolutely all-the-time” firm, formulaic response. (I think I just saw you roll your eyes…)

Let me start by saying that we negotiate the price for every new piece we order.  Artists tell us what they would like to get, and we consider what end price the market will bear. If we can compensate them at their asking price, cover our costs, and turn their pieces over quickly in the marketplace, we’ve got the magic number. Dealing is done.  But sometimes the magic number comes after going back to the pencil and paper a time or two. Sometimes the artists have to re-think what they hope to make.  Or sometimes we say, “Okay, we’ll try it at that price and see if it moves. ” And we’ve even said, “Oh, we can do better for you than that. Let’s go higher.”

Hand hammered folk art from Haiti

Sculpture al fresco in Haiti.

 

I can tell you honestly that I have watched these discussions a hundred times, and all of those responses have occurred. Generally, the more experienced the artist, the better feel he has for pricing.  His asking price and our buying price are easily matched and settled with a smile and handshake. We’ve been doing this successfully for a while now and so have they.  Together, we’ve learned that these exchanges yield the best results for everybody. It’s all good!

So then what?

The artist receives his order, for say thirty of his “Flower with Hummingbird” designs.  At the time he receives that order, he also receives full payment for all thirty pieces.  In this way, we not only meet, we exceed fair trade practice guidelines, which set a 50% minimum.  One month later, the art is delivered to our warehouse.  In other words, we absorb all of the risk.  If a flood washes out the workshop, the loss is ours. Not everyone works on those terms, but we do.  Always have, always will.

And there you have it.  The answer is somewhat circuitous, but the clear result is win-win.  (Oh! I just saw you roll your eyes again…)

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

 

 


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

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