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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


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

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