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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

 

 


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


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


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


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!


Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe

Peruvian retablo featuring a very traditonal Our Lady of Guadalupe

Peruvian retablo featuring a very traditional Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Tomorrow, in much of North and South America, the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe will be celebrated with pilgrimages and fiestas throughout the two continents. It is believed that on that date in 1531, the Mother of God appeared for the second time to Juan Diego, a humble Nahuatl peasant, and gave him the proof that he needed to convince the Spanish Archbishop to build her a temple on Tepeyac Hill in what was to become Mexico City.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is widely embraced as the Mother of the Americas for a number of reasons. She appeared to the indigenous Juan Diego, rather than to the Spanish ruling priests, and spoke to him in his native tongue, saying, “Do you not recognize me? Am I not of your own kind? Are you not in the shadow of my protection?” The miracle of the tilma – her image being emblazoned on Juan Diego’s cloak – was covered

Ceramic recreation of the appearance of Guadalupe by the Aguilar Family of Oaxaca, Mexico

Ceramic recreation of the appearance of Guadalupe by the Aguilar Family of Oaxaca, Mexico

up by Castillian roses and revealed only when the roses tumbled onto the floor of the office of the Archbishop. He would have recognized the significance immediately: The roses did not grow on Tepeyac Hill and certainly not in December. They were from his own native Spain. Even with her uncustomarily dark skin, the Virgin’s image was laden with Marian symbolism which the white colonial Archbishop could not fail to understand, from the blue of her gown, to its celestial brocade, to the aura that surrounded her. In short, Juan Diego’s evidence was compelling beyond fault and her miracle was declared.

The beginnings of the temple were built in 1533 and dedicated in her honor. A second church on the same site was begun in 1556 and in 1695 the cornerstone of a new, larger sanctuary was laid. The modern Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe, was formally dedicated in 1976. Therein,

Guatemalan wood carving of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Guatemalan wood carving of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Haitian metal art by Edward Dieudonne

The Virgin of Guadalupe worked in Haitian metal by Edward Dieudonne.

the miraculous tilma hangs on permenant display.

Over the centuries, European and New World cultures as well as tradition, history, and politics have combined to establish the Virgin of Guadalupe as a universally recognized Marian icon. Her image is revered and artistically rendered in every imaginable medium: ceramics, textiles, paper – even tatoo ink. As the “Mother of the Americas,” the Virgin of Guadalupe’s role and corresponding iconography evolves continuously in response to the ever-changing needs of society.

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


A Fascination with Folk Art Nativities

Haitian metal Nativity Scene

A Haitian version of the Nativity, by Exulien Exuma

Isn’t it fun to look at Nativity scenes? I love to see how the “First Christmas” is expressed in folk art, with variations from one artist to the next;

one tradition to the next. Diversity is a wonderful thing! Just looking at the three pictured here, the cultural clues are as distinct as they are endearing.

In the first example – worked in recycled metal from Haiti by Exulien Exuma – the evidence of it’s tropical origin is plain. The Holy Infant is unswaddled, for the evening is warm and balmy. He is laying in a tuft of grass under swaying palms, Joseph wears a straw hat, and Mary’s hair is bound up in a kerchief, Caribbean-style. A goat stands in close attendance, nary a sheep or camel in sight.

This Peruvian version, created in Ayacucho, has design details characteristic of the indigenous cultures of the Andes. Even the clay from which it

is made is indicative of its source. The bread being offered by the adoring shepherd is likely Pan de Chuta, if I had to guess. (And I do.) I think it’s a good guess, though. Pan de Chuta is a sweet, anise-flavored bread and regional specialty of the Peruvian Andes. Baked in traditional

Folk Art Nativity from Peru

Peruvian Nativity set from Ayacucho.

wood-burning ovens over eucalyptis leaves, and the small, round loaves are frequently offered as gifts. (To read more about the bread or to see the recipe, click here.) The shepherd also wears a knitted cap, very typical of the region, while Mary and Joseph wear heavy felted wool fedoras, also popularly worn in the Andes. Each of their cloaks, and the Holy Infant’s blanket bear indigenous weaving motifs, all of which combine to create a very Andean signature on the scene.

The third example, though not strictly a Nativity scene, depicts the Holy Family in their flight to Egypt, as interpreted by a Central American folk

artist from El Salvador. Again, clues to the artist’s world view abound. The perfectly cone-shaped mountains that loom in the background of the

Folk art painting of the Holy Family and their Flight into Egypt

From El Salvador comes this vibrantly colored rendering of the Holy Family.

painting echo the volcanic cones that dominate the Salvadorean horizon. Mary and Joseph are enveloped in what might be considered biblical robes, but their bright colors and bold floral and geometric patterns are straight out of the Central American tradition as are the chickens that mill and peck near Joseph’s feet.

While the central story of the First Christmas is universal, its representation through folk art is a unique reflection of the individual artist’s cultural identity, conveyed through the values and aesthetics of his communtiy. Like a translation, folk art nativities are expressions in colloquial language, with nuances and accents that make them vivid and easily understood. And that is precisely what makes each one unique and wonderful.

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


Haitian Art in a Modern Decorative Scheme

Working in Haiti is great. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s mind-opening and mind-blowing all at once. It’s also steamy and sweaty and dusty and at the end of the day, you’re not opposed to taking in a bit of gracious ambiance with your hot shower and cold drink. We’ve stayed at some nice

Tropical heat is a work hazard for wimps.

Hot and sweaty in Haiti. It is the tropics, after all.

hotels over the years, nothing truly fancy, but consistently having good service, clean sheets, a solid in-house restaurant, and wonderful character. Having said that, Casey always has an eye out for the next best thing and is prone to experimentation. So when she announced that we were staying at the Best Western Premiere Hotel in Petionville, I wasn’t sure that I had heard her correctly.

Best Western? Well, check the box affirmative for clean sheets and decent service and restaurants of an adequate sort. I’ve never minded

staying at a Best Western, but in the wonderful character category, I haven’t ever thought of giving them high marks. Plain vanilla has pretty much been my over-riding impression and I am here to say THAT is very unCasey-like.

Louis-Prospere inspired elevator surround and Haitian recycled metal mirror frame.

Design element from a Louis-Propere painting surrounds the elevator door. Mirror frame is Hatiain metal.

But she nailed it.

Let me pause to tell you this is not a Tripadvisor review that I’ve posted incorrectly to the It’s Cactus blog. The point is actually decorating with Haitian art, and how they did it at the Best Western Premiere Hotel so beautifully. The modern, somewhat minimalist design scheme is punctuated by GREAT local art. Rumor has it that Donna Karan had a hand in the interior design work, so saying that the designer had an eye is a bit of an understatement. Take, for example, the paintings by Pierre-Louis Prospere hanging in the hallway:  design elements from those paintings were appropriated to surround the elevator doors on every floor. How about the framed recycled tire art arranged near the lobby check-in desk by Eugene Andre? And check out the full barrel sculptures by the early metal art masters hanging near sparkling crystal chandeliers. All combined for a WOW factor that for me, was completely unexpected but very much appreciated.

I have written previously about different decorative schemes into which Haitian art can be incorporated. Clearly, I can add minimalist modern to that list. And how!

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Haitian iron and crystal, together in the Best Western Premier Hotel

Imagine pairing Haitian iron and crystal. Magic!

Haitian art - rubber cutouts

Cut-out rubber artwork by Eugene Andre


Letting the Skeleton Out of the Closet

I wasn't kidding about the skeleton in my closet! Sculpture by Jean Claude Soulouque

I wasn’t kidding about the skeleton in my closet! Sculpture by Jean Claude Soulouque

Labor Day has passed and suddenly, it’s fall. Of course, in the scientific sense, it is not fall until the autumnal equinox has occurred. This is when the sun shines directly on the Equator and the length of day and night are very nearly equal, happening this year on Sept. 23rd at 08:22 Universal Coordinated Time, according to timeanddate.com, just in case you were wondering. All of that is well and good – not to mention precise – but to me, fall has arrived already. The school busses are back in the neighborhhood, the temperatures are starting their blessed annual slide, and if I look very, very carefully, I can see the first signs that the leaves are starting to loosen their grip on the twigs and branches above me. That is all the proof I need.

So all of that reminds me that I have a skeleton in the closet that should come out. Maybe not right away, but at least I should start thinking about it. I might try carrying him around a little bit, give him some air, and see if if I can’t find a fresh, new spot for him to while away the hours. Yes, it is time to generate some new decorating ideas for the Day of the Dead and Halloween next month!

I have had my skeleton for a couple of years now, and I tell you, I love it. But every year it is the same. I put it on one of my two front porch pillars and there it hangs, like a macabre sentinel, guarding the Door of Dread. It looks good – great, in fact, if I may say so. But still, it’s got other possibilities. I just need to find them.

Should I dress him up? Hang him elsewhere? Use him in some other manner? The first two below are my favorites. What do you think?

IMG_9102 (640x640)IMG_9095 (640x640)IMG_9090 (640x640)IMG_9083 (640x640)

 

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

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