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It’s Owl Season

metal wall sculpture from Haiti

Exceptionally detailed owl sculpture to hang indoors or out in any season.

What is it about owls and fall? Why is their association with the months of Sept. – November so strong? Every home decorator worth her salt

Owl sculpture by Haitian artist, Francois Wilnord

Haitian metal artist, Francois Wilnord

hauls out owls of every shape, size, and function in the fall but why? Are they the right color for autumn décor?  I suppose they are, in the sense of intense golden eyes and feathers in rich, luxurious shades of brown that many of them have.  Is their seasonal popularity linked with Halloween?  Their plaintive “Whooooo” is mournful and positively eerie coming as it does in the dark of the night. In that regard, owls “fit” the spooky theme.

I dug for a plausible scientific explanation that binds owls to the idea of fall.  According to such venerable sources as, “The Barn Owl Trust,” and “The Cornell Ornithology Lab,” many species begin their courtship rituals in mid-to-late autumn, making them more vocal as they beckon their lifetime mates to come hither. Also, avid bird-watchers and casual observers alike realize that owls are more visible during the fall since the tree limbs have become bare. So there’s that.

It seems that autumn and owls do lend themselves to linkage.  But why should it be limiting?  Owls are wild and free.  They soar the skies and penetrate the darkness. If they can do all of that, they can hang in your living room in the spring! Why not??? When they are portrayed in artwork this beautiful, they should be out anytime.  All the time.  It’s always owl season!

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


Vintage Andean Treasures

Vintage manta from PeruRecently, I was talking on the phone with Casey.  She was very excited about a few cartons she had opened, containing vintage textiles from Bolivia and Peru.  “I bought these for the shop 20-25 years ago.  When we decided to close the shop so quickly and go online, I put them away knowing that it would be very fun when I brought them out again.  But this is REALLY, REALLY FUN! I feel like I’ve uncovered a chest of buried treasure.  It’s better than Christmas!”

The textiles; mantas, belts, monteros, and more are indeed beautiful.  And they are becoming increasingly hard to come by as the skills required to create them are lost among younger generations.  Interest in acquiring centuries-old weaving skill is steadily giving way to learning skills which are more financially lucrative.  Vintage clothing and textiles are thereby becoming increasingly rare and valuable.

But what is vintage, actually?  Old?  Oldish?  In my mind, vintage is phase on a continuum. Older than retro, surely, but not as old as “antique” and definitely not to be confused with “dated!”   However, concurrent with the idea of vintage are the ideas of fashion and style.  The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that fashion comes and goes, but style is forever.  Style connotes an an elemental endurance, intelligence in design, and fineness of craftsmanship. Fashion is transient. Things are adapted constantly to BE fashionable, but the best HAVE style.Handwoven textile

Whether we label items as “retro,” “vintage” or “antique,” they have inherent style.  The words – no matter if they  describe clothing or cars or furniture or art – refer to things that are not merely fashionable or “on-trend,” they  imply something better. They indicate the relative age of a well-made item of intrinsic value that will never go out of style. In a word, such items are timeless.

Casey’s cartons of vintage Latin American textiles have that timeless quality.  Each piece was painstakingly crafted by artisans living high in remote Andean villages.  The weaving techniques used reflect generations of family tradition, indigenous materials, and local meaning.  Each piece tells a special story about it’s origins.  Yes, she uncovered a treasure chest indeed!

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

 

 


Child Labor and Work Ethics

Recently, I was filling out a portion of the application for renewal of our Fair Trade Federation certification.  One of the questions read as follows:  “How often does your business evaluate children’s roles in production?” It was clear to me that this question was leading to the defense against practices of children being forced to work and thereby unable to be children. Children who can play and go to school and relax on a lazy day in the sun.  You can bet that It’s Cactus is firmly in that camp. Kids should be kids!

Certainly there are endless heart-breaking examples of children being treated as little more than slaves, forced by economic circumstance to labor long hours at the expense of their education, and furthermore, their childhood. I have blogged about such children in Haiti, who suffer under the restavek system. (Sept. 13,2013  The Price of Poverty:  300,000 Cinderella and No Ball.) They are children of poor families “given” to be raised by wealthier “foster families” of dubious intent.  In exchange for labor, a restavek child is supposedly afforded the opportunity for an education. All too often, however, that exchange for the child translates into exploitation and abuse. Though we have never seen this practice in our own Haitian experiences, we stand in total opposition to it.  In fact, our work in Haiti is undertaken to elevate economic conditions so that such practices are no longer even considered to be possible solutions to a problem. We strive to make them unthinkable.

Having said that, however, we are happy to see children given tasks and responsibilities for which they may or may not be  monetarily compensated as a means of cultivating a strong work ethic that will serve them well throughout their years. Coming home after school and flattening out a few pieces of metal in their father’s workshop is a healthy means of accomplishing this end. In fact, Casey is rather adamant that her own daughter pitches in for It’s Cactus. And she does, working in the booth at shows during the summer and writing out price tags after school. In Casey’s words:  “You could call it child labor, I suppose, but I prefer to think of it as good parenting. Its an opportunity for her to learn and to participate. To develop a sense of responsibility, satisfaction and pride in the work that she has done. It helps our business and working together becomes a shared family experience. It’s good for all of us!”

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


Handmade Belts from Guatemala are a Hit

Guatemalan beltThough it shouldn’t be surprising, it is, a little bit.  Our humble little handmade belts from Guatemala have been selling like hotcakes for months now.  They are colorful, versatile, and just right for oh-so many things.  Not only that, they are wonderful, traditional folk art items with a distinctive place in Guatemalan cultural history.

The ancient Mayans, whose ancestors compose a great deal of Guatemala’s current population, placed a high value on the weaving skills of their women.  Over a thousand years ago, the Mayans cultivated cotton for textile production. Vegetable dyes were concocted by the men, who also dyed the cotton fibers,  but from there the women took over. Spinning and then weaving the threads, they formed in intricate patterns on simple backstrap looms. Women of royalty were taught to a supremely high level of skill and used cotton fiber of the highest quality to create textiles of great complexity.  The peasantry did not, of course have access to the finest cottons, and the garments they made were often simpler, but in both cases the ability to weave was a measure of a woman’s worth.

Interestingly, ancient Mayan steles have been discovered by archaeologists who have identified the goddess of weaving, Ix Chel, busy at her work.  She is depicted as sitting with her backstrap loom, one end tied to a tree and the other affixed around her waist.  The Cosmic Weaver holds the shuttle in her left hand, poised to pass the warp threads through the weft, as generations of mortal women have ever since.

Today, Rosa creates our woven belts in exactly the same manner.  We have been buying her handcrafted textiles for years and always, the pride of her family, village, and culture is worked painstakingly into every piece.  We call them belts or hatbands, and in fact they can be used either way.  But that’s not all!  We have seen them affixed to mortar boards at graduations, used as trim on pants and jackets, and as curtain ties – all with great result!  They can be used to tie up packages, or to add color and Latin flair to small holiday trees and wreaths.  Though the origins of handwoven Mayan textiles go back millennia, the look is hot, hot, HOT today!

hatband from GuatemalaBlue hand-woven belt

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


Lost in Translation

It is shameful to me that, with the multitude of opportunities I have had throughout my life to change the fact, I am monolingual. Sad but true. English is the only language for which I have any real skill at all.

Having spent time in several foreign countries for a significant portion of my adult life, it’s not like I couldn’t have learned. I just didn’t. Well, it’s not like I didn’t learn ANYTHING. I can order rice in Thailand in Thai, I can ask for directions in German, I can say my colors and numbers in French, and I can ask the Spanish-speaking guide in Ecuador how much further we have to walk through these mountains to get back to the car. But that is the pinnacle of my achievement.

Therefore, it is hard to be critical of our Haitian metal artists that write to me in English to give me their biographical information so that I can share their stories with our customers. In truth, I am impressed that they can do it at all. For that matter, I am impressed that they even try. Creole is the mother tongue in Haiti – a blend of French and West African languages – and my pidgin French is of little use between us. In fact, it gets me into trouble because I think I understand when I don’t. Or sometimes, I don’t understand that I don’t understand, which is even worse.

In the first place, Haitian names are elusive. Generally, Haitians call each other by their first names, but they write them family name first. So Wiseton Brutus is Wiseton to his friends, but he signs his name on his work as Brutus Wiseton. What I took to be a great propensity for naming boy children Brutus is actually just a very big family with many households in Croix-des-Bouquets. Notice that I said, “generally.” That’s because sometimes they both call each other and write their names first name first. Julio Balan is Julio Balan. The fun is figuring out who does what. It’s a pretty good game!

Then there is deciphering the information I receive. I give the artists questions to help them get started and one I often ask is where they get their inspiration for their art. Here is one recent response: “While i am on my bed thinking about my work and i see all artisant do the work i said let me try to do the different work.” I took that to mean that he thinks about what other artists are doing and he tries to come up with something else. Something unique. Awesome! Not a huge linguistic leap, and it’s a great artistic technique. So I took what I assumed he meant and that’s how I wrote it. (And my journalism professor just rolled over in his grave.)

By far the most challenging are the shots out of the blue. The information offered is not related to anything I’ve asked, yet it is put down earnestly with every hope that it will be helpful to me and of interest to the people that buy their work. There have been many examples over the years, but here is my current favorite: “i in metal since when i was 15 years old i still work because i love my job i am a selibate.” Um. Yes. Some things are just lost in translation.

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


Savvy Shoppers Ask Questions and We Have Answers on Fair Trade

Watching a video of how Haitian metal art is madeWe are back from the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society’s Flower Show and happy to report that it was another successful run.  Despite snowstorms and every sort of precipitation that Mother Nature could cause to fall during the ten-day event, the Flower Show participants proved their mettle and pluck and came in great numbers to revel in the beauty of the event….and to SHOP!

The It’s Cactus crew was pleased to welcome old friends and new to our brightly-colored signature booth.

 

Over and over, we shared the story of how our metal sculptures are made from recycled oil barrels by village artisans in Haiti.  It is always gratifying to know how important our practice of Fair Trade is to increasing numbers of shoppers who not only want to buy hand-crafted art, but also want their purchases to support a greater good.  Time and again we were asked, “How much goes back to the artists?” and we were always proud to say that, “None goes back because they have already been paid 100 percent up front.”

This response may sound flippant and seem like it evades the question, but it is actually an important point. By trading in this manner, the artists do not have to make initial outlays for materials and labor out-of-pocket and wait for the return on their investments. Such lags, while endurable in strong economies, are virtually untenable in Haiti. Paying up front eliminates that stress and financial burden for the artist, and in many cases, makes trade possible at all. In fact, paying 100 percent up front far exceeds the amount required by the Fair Trade Federation of its members.

Moreover, prices are negotiated with the artist for each design that we purchase. The artist is a full participant in that decision-making process. Always the discussion includes questions such as, “What do you need to make on this piece so that it is sustainable for you?”  “What can we do to price this piece equitably for you and attractively for our customers?” Along these same lines, we exchange ideas about design, quality control, and consistent flow of output. In so doing, our experience with the marketplace and theirs about the creative process becomes shared knowledge.

Like the flowers, it’s a beautiful thing….

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


Underway in Philly at the Flower Show

Setting up the Flower Show

The Convention Center becomes a virtual construction site as exhibitors prepare for this year’s Flower Show.

Preparations are underway for the opening of the 2018 Pennsylvania Horticulture Society’s annual Flower Show.  Exhibitors are bustling, loaders are hauling, forklifts are beeping, and tens of thousands of glorious flowers are being placed in artful array, ready to bloom their little hearts out. Somehow, amid the chaos of set-up, everything falls spectacularly into place. The show doors are flung wide to welcome an estimated 250,000 gardening enthusiasts, flower lovers, and visitors who are simply ready to escape the greys of winter.

For our part, Casey is on site and hard at it, putting together the It’s Cactus booth.  Everything is trucked overland

It's Cactus booth

The Booth – fresh off the overland truck and ready for assembly.

weeks in advance; the solid structure that is the booth itself as well as hundreds of pieces of Haitian metal sculpture, screws, drills, lighting, business cards, a TV, cash register tape, shopping bags, and, and, AND! For a while, the booth resembles nothing so much as a 3-D puzzle, but bit by bit, the pieces come together.  New sculptures as well as old favorites will be unwrapped and arranged, ready to be discovered by happy, exuberant shoppers.

And so it begins! Opening times are as follows:  Saturday March 3 – Sunday March 11, 2018Hours. Saturday, March 3 — 11 am – 8 pm. Sunday, March 4 — 8 am – 9 pm. Monday – Friday — March 5 – 9: 10 am – 9 pm. Saturday, March 10 — 8 am – 9 pm. Sunday, March 11 — 8 am – 6 pm * last entry at 5 pm. Member’s Preview Hours. Friday, March 2 — 12 pm – 3:30 pm.

We hope to see you at The Show!

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

 


Grace from the *&% # – hole

Haitian Metal Artist Claudy Soulouque with his Peace on Earth design.

From Haiti, our artists respond to President Trump’s poisonous words with messages of kindness and wisdom.

The following letter was written and sent by Casey last week to our artists in Haiti. She felt – as so many of us did – that there needed to be a counterpoint to the deplorable words spoken by President Trump about their country the week before. Here is her email, as well as a few representative emails she received in response. These emails reaffirmed the grace and courage we have always admired in our Haitian partners.
Dear Roody and Friends,
 
After last week my mind has been troubled and I wanted to reach out. The US President said horrible things about Haiti, El Salvador, and the countries of Africa.
 
The hurtful comments made by President Trump regarding Haiti and others are shameful to me. I deeply regret the thoughtless disrespect that he as shown and I am embarrassed. He has no understanding of the courageous struggles of the Haitian, Salvadorean, and African peoples and their work to rise to a new dawn of a brighter future.
 
I as well as millions of Americans am appalled. We will never abandon you. We respect the great character of your peoples and pledge ourselves to select better leadership for the United States. The current Administration fails to represent the loving spirit of the America and its high regard for the dignity of the human race.
 
I am so sorry for the offensive words and actions of our President.
Casey
Below are samples of the replies we received.
From Shelove Vilsaint:  “I will let you the USA is a good country of good people. I love the USA people, even if Donald Trump is a racism.  Every country have somebody racism too…”
 
 From Ghisnet St. Bonheur:  “Okay, so don’t worry about it.  Even if he is the President of the USA, but it is not the word of all the american people. I already know how much american people appreciate Haiti as you show it. We love all countries in the world, together let’s fight for a peace world.”
 
From Roody Soulouque:  “I realize that he’s [President Trump] trying to put everything in order for his country just because he loves his country and cares for his country.  I remember he always promised to put the interest of America first….No human being is perfect and always sees things just. I recognize it but the US needs to deal with other nations, needs to deal with us.”
I hate to go political here, but I feel I must. The world is a small place and we in the US are responsible to it.  Let’s all commit ourselves to selecting better leadership in future elections.  From races for city council seats to the highest office in America let us become informed and involved.  Let’s demand better from our leaders – and let’s get it.
 Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

It’s All Good

They Are One organization

They Are One is in active partnership with this school in Bercy, Haiti.

The shift from the old year to a new one often brings with it a bit of introspection. How can I do more? How can I do better? Where should I put my energy and resources for the greater good? So it was true at It’s Cactus. With the passage of 2017 to 2018, we looked for answers to those very questions – and we found a few! As is frequently the case, the answers were surprisingly close at hand.

As it turned out, excellent opportunity was right in our own backyard. Salinas, CA is the action center for “They Are One,” a charitable organization which has local outreach as well as ongoing projects in Haiti. They conduct fund-raising activities year-round to aid and empower needy children in Monterey County as well as sponsor a faith-based secondary school for children in Bercy, Haiti. In partnership with Lifesong MBO, they not only deliver funds to supply hot meals, school supplies, and uniforms for the children, but also support teachers and staff with contributions toward their salaries.

In the words of Jackie Scott, Vice President of They Are One, “Our organization is all about empowering orphans in Haiti by connecting our community with their community. Our first priority is to build a long term relationship with the staff and children of MBO School in Bercy, Haiti. We do this by taking trips there to connect face-to-face and determine how we can best come alongside the leadership in the work they are already doing well. TAO:Local is the division of our organization that works with local vulnerable children and families in need ”

metal crosses hand made in Haiti

It’s Cactus donated crosses like these to They Are One to augment their fund-raising efforts.

How perfect – a match made in heaven! Opportunity to help our own community as well as school children in Haiti. With an idea budding, Casey contacted the TAO officers and proposed a donation of several dozen pieces of Haitian art from It’s Cactus which they could use in fund-raising efforts and reap 100 percent of the profits. Not only would TAO programs benefit, the plan would also give greater exposure for our Haitian artists and their work.

Done and done! They Are One posted their items on Facebook and the resulting sales have been fantastic! Additionally, they have sold items at church fairs with great success and interest in the art form has risen in tandem. Moments of introspection have thus paid off: Energy and resources are being forward for the greater good. And it’s ALL GOOD!

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


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

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