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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


Haiti’s Presidential Elections

How I feel after the third presidential campaign phonecall of the day.

AAAGH! Election time!

Here we are in the United States, nearly 12 full months before we cast our ballots and nearly everywhere we turn, we see, hear, and receive phonecalls “from” the candidates. Three Democrats, fourteen Republicans, and one Green Party candidate are persistantly vying for our attention. I suppose if my glass were half full, I would feel honored and immensely empowered because my vote is so important. But on this point, my glass is half empty. We have hardly even gotten started and instead of feeling honored and empowered, I feel inundated and irritated.

Before I cry into my coffee too much, however, I must recall the election run-up that we witnessed in Haiti. We were there in early October, a mere two weeks before their preliminary presidential elections. Yes, you read that correctly. Preliminary. There were 54 presidential candidates in the running, a situation which usually necessitates a run-off, unless by some miracle, a majority is won by someone in the first round. The run-off elections were already tenatively scheduled for Dec. 27th.

Campaign ads everywhere in Port-au-Prince

One of the more clever and artful of the zillions of campaign ads on the streets of Port-au-Prince.

I didn’t listen to any Haitian TV or radio while I was there, and hadn’t read up on the elections beforehand, so I had formed no opinions about which candidate might prove to be the next president. However, the enormous amount of street signage lead me to conduct a very unscientific experiment. No Gallup pollster worth his salt would ever rely on my methodology, but what the heck. Based on the huge number of times Jude Celestin appeared in my hundreds of photos of that trip, I predicted that he would be the winner, and that Jovenel Moise, who appeared almost as frequently in my photo record, would finish well.

Now, a little over a month later, it turns out that I’m not so far off. Because of the complicated and somewhat convoluted (to put it mildly) calculations of the Oct. 25th election returns, the early results have just been announced. Out of the 54 Haitian presidential contenders, the candidate backed by the current government, Jovenel Moise actually won the greatest margin in the preliminary race with 32.8% of the popular vote. Jude Celestin came in second with 25.3%. So I got it backwards, but out of 54 possibles, I called the top two. Not bad!

Haiti's streets covered with presidential ads

Smiling faces of presidential hopefuls cover every available surface.

(For more election results, click here.)

So what does my experiment suggest for the current candidates in our country? Crank up the laser printers! Simultaneously, we voters can look forward to a landscape filled with signs of the candidates displaying their winning-est smiles for months to come, along with our honor and empowerment being constantly and steadfastly reassured – assuming our glasses are half full, of course.

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


Being Grateful

Wash day.

Wash day.

Thanksgiving is a reflective time, as we all know, and it is good for the soul to pause and do that reflecting. There are all kinds of things for which to be grateful. Friends and family of course, home, community, opportunity, comfort, security – all of those are strong candidates for topping the list. But I realize that also right up there for me is my washing machine.

Perhaps providing a little background information is in order.

Washing clothes in a plastic basin in water carried from the village pump.

Washing clothes in a plastic basin in water carried from the village pump.

A little over a month ago, my faithful washing machine of 21 years and three moves quit. I had a home warranty policy, which covered such catastrophies, but I was having a terribly hard time convincing that company’s customer service representatives to honor the coverage. I was polite, I was calm, I was persistent, I was patient, and then I hit the wall. I called 20 more times. I asked to speak to the supervisor. And the president. I became furious, I raged, I fumed, and every week when I took my mountain of laundry and $27 worth of quarters to the coin-op laundry mat, I was in danger of spontaneously combusting.

And then I went to Haiti.

It was a buying trip and we stopped at the home of one of our artists, who offered us a couple of chairs and invited us to sit down while he went into the back of his shop to bring us his latest designs. While we were waiting, I noticed a woman next door, face impassive, handwashing her family’s laundry in a battered plastic tub. The bubbles had nearly been exhausted, but on she scrubbed. Clearly, when you carry your own

The clothes line.

The clothes line.

water, five gallons at a time from the village pump several blocks away, you don’t empty the basin prematurely. Diligently, she wrung the skirt, blouse, and tee-shirt one by one and then methodically hung them up to dry on a line strung between rafters across the front of the house. I watched in silent awe and admiration as she walked resolutely inside and continued with the tasks of the day.

When I returned home, I got a new washer, I just did it; my battles were over and so was my fury. What was I even mad about? Was it because I “couldn’t” do my laundry? Now I load my clothes into the washer, push a few buttons, and 40 minutes later, throw them into the new matching dryer where they tumble for a while and come out, more or less clean and perfect every single time. For that, I am grateful. And even more, I am grateful to that dignified woman in Haiti who, in the simple act of washing her clothes gave me perspective.

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


Expected and Unexpected in Haiti

Curious teens climbed the walls to dance to the music and get a better view of the procession.

Curious teens climbed the walls to dance to the beat of the rah-rah band get a better view of the procession.

Last Wednesday, when I boarded the 9:45 flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince with Casey, Gigi, and Mary, I was struck by conflicting senses that I knew what to expect and that I have never known what to expect. I fully anticipated that traffic would be slow and chaotic, but the ride would be endlessly fascinating. The language would be tricky but the smiles would be genuine. The heat and dust would be oppressive but tropical breezes and Prestige at the end of the day would be blessed. I have come to expect all of these things. But always, always there something that lies in wait; something beyond my experience base that finds its chance to be added.

This time it was a funeral procession.

It was mid-morning and we were motoring purposefully along when our progress inexplicably slowed to a crawl. There was a string of cars, and a large number of interspersed pedestrians seemed to be following them. A few blocks along, Franz, our intrepid Haitian driver, spotted the hearse ahead. “Ah,” he said, “a funeral. Well, it is Saturday. Lots of funerals on Saturdays. This could be a while.”

A few blocks later, we came to a “dead stop.” (Sorry, couldn’t resist!) The hearse had reached the cemetery and the crowd had begun to swell.

Huge floral arrangements swirled behind the casket as mourners entered the cemetery.

Huge floral arrangements swirled behind the casket as mourners entered the cemetery.

Up ahead we could hear a rah-rah band; drums and vuvuzelas creating a wild, not quite melodic but definitely rhythmic cacophony. The cemetery was surrounded by a large cinderblock wall, and agile teenagers scrambled to the top and bopped to the beat. Moments later, the coffin appeared, born by black-suited pall bearers, who began to dance vigorously with their heavy load up and down the street. Women and girls dazzling in their finery cavorted behind the coffin, swirling voluminous floral arrangements of yellows and whites. This went on for fifteen minutes or so; a spectacle of funerary custom that I could certainly recognize, but that was far from the sedate traditions of my own experience.

I have read many times that Haitians celebrate their culture by giving thanks for those who have lived before them. They believe their future depends on the ways they honor their ancestors. What I observed, I think, is that very thing. The Haitian way of honoring the dead is to mourn, yes, but also to celebrate the life that was lived. To see that played out was wonderfully unexpected.

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


State Dept. Advises Caution When Driving in Haiti

Women headed to market walking in the middle of the street where the sidewalks are too narrow.

Women headed to market walk in the middle of the street where the sidewalks are too narrow.

Planning a trip to Haiti is fun and exciting, but it is always a good idea to have a feel for what you are getting yourself into. Having just consulted the State Department website on Haiti, I am happy to report that the current advisories don’t offer up anything much that is new or alarming. Status quo, you might say. Maybe it is my anticipatory mood, though, that makes me think their admonishments of caution are actually kind of funny.Take for example:

“In addition to vehicles, a variety of other objects may appear on the road in Haiti, such as wooden carts dragged by people or animals, small ice cream carts, animals, mechanics working on vehicles parked on the street, and vendors and their wares.”

Ya think? Then there was this gem:

“Driving in Haiti must be undertaken with extreme caution. Traffic is usually chaotic; those with no knowledge of Haitian roads and traffic

Goats running along the road across from the US Embassy. Guess you could call it "local color."

Goats running along the road across from the US Embassy. Guess you could call it “local color.”

customs should hire a driver through a local tour operator or hotel. Roads are generally unmarked and detailed and accurate maps are not widely available. Lanes are not marked and signs indicating the direction of traffic flow seldom exist. Huge potholes may cause drivers to execute unpredictable and dangerous maneuvers in heavy traffic.”

Been there, seen that! In one of the more remarkable examples of potholes burned in my brain, I am pretty sure you could have lost a four-year old for good. Roadway hazard doesn’t quite describe it accurately. Yawning bottomless chasm is much closer.

And finally:

“Signaling imminent actions is not widely practiced and not all drivers use turn indicators or international hand signals properly. For instance, many drivers use their left blinker for all actions, including right turns and stops. Non-standard and non-intuitive hand signals are used to indicate a variety of actions. Drivers do not always verify that the road is clear before switching lanes, turning, or merging. When making a left-hand turn, drivers should be aware that traffic may pass on the left while they are attempting to turn. This is legal in Haiti.”

All of which makes me thank my lucky stars that we have Franz. His skill as a driver is beyond compare and he proves it every single time we

Meet Franz, our eternally patient, extraordinarily skilled driver and friend. He is worth his weight in gold.

Meet Franz, our eternally patient, extraordinarily skilled driver and friend. He is worth his weight in gold.

get in his van. Truly a he is heaven-sent; he is able to negotiate all of the above and more with infinite patience and finess. I actually think he could even make the State Department relax. Now THAT is a gift.

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


Bringing Haiti Home

Mary Ragsdale will film video for itscactus

Meet Mary Ragsdale, who will be helping us bring Haiti home to you.

We’ve got an exciting few days ahead – another buying trip to Haiti! But this time, we are fortunate to have an additional intrepid traveller with us. Along with Casey and her mom Gigi and I, Mary Ragsdale will be joining us. And Mary’s got skills. I personally regard them as superpowers, for SHE does video….

Everybody knows that video tells a story that simple photos cannot. With Mary behind the camera, we will be able to share with you so much more of the Haitian experience than we’ve ever been able to before. We’ve had the “Visit Haiti” segment on our website for quite some time but now we’ll elevate the whole production, with a start-to-finish clip on how Haitian metal sculpture is made.

You will also see scenes of of Croix-des-Bouquets and daily life. We’ll do a video piece on pumping water and the women who head carry it back

Video will help bring the Haiti we love home.

Video will be another way for you to meet our artists and their families.

to their homes for washing, drinking and cooking. In a voodoo temple, we’ll take viewers on a “nickel tour” and interview practitioners on some of their rituals and observances. Another piece we’ve got in mind is on voodoo flags, how they are made and how they are sold on the “Voodoo Tree.” All in all, the newly shot videos will enable us to share our experiences and provide a glimpse into the lives and work of our artists and their families in Haiti.

It’s a pretty heady prospect! It is so helpful for people understand the art that they buy, where it comes from, what it takes to create it, and how their purchases helps the artists who produce it. Understanding takes the enthusiasm level from “I like it,” to “I love it!” And that’s just what we llke to hear!

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


Could this be Paradise?

Hello Haiti, indeed! Colorful storefront in Croix-des-Bouquet.

Hello Haiti, indeed! Colorful storefront in Croix-des-Bouquet.

Though Casey has been travelling to Haiti since the late 90’s and I have racked up more than a few trips myself, I have never really thought of travelling to Haiti simply for the fun of it. (View our “Visit Haiti with us” video.) I love going there, it is a truly rich experience each and every time, but I don’t know that i would ever think to go there to pursue a pleasure-seeking journey.
Until now.
First, I was confronted with the idea while reading an on-line version of Travel and Leisure Magazine entitled, “Best Places to Travel in 2015,” which you can read HERE. I did a little follow-up research on a particular recommendation to Ile-a-Vache, which literally translates as “Island to Cow.” (Seriously. “Island to Cow.” You can’t make that stuff up.) Despite the strange name, the reviews were intriguingly effusive: “Paradise on earth.” “Wish I could stay here forever.” “Breathtaking views.” Impeccable service and food” “Stunning, romantic, a joyous place to visit.” Well, then. Put that in the thought bank. Maybe put a few days on the end of a rigorous buying trip. Certainly worth considering.
Then, just this past week, I got a catalogue from “Tom’s” the trendy and philanthropic California- based shoe company. Tom’s has been involved in Haiti for years with their “Buy one – give one” program to shoe the shoeless in poverty stricken countries throughout the world. Fashion photography being what it is, everything in the catalogue looks pretty good, but WOW! Never mind the shoes. The beaches look incredible! The water, a crystaline turquoise deepening to an intense aquamarine that begs for swimming. Sans Souci, the palace of post-colonial kings, appeared as though straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, with all the exoticism and dash that

Roodlet Jacques "Palms" sculpture gives a taste of the tropical beauty of his country.

Roodlet Jacques “Palms” sculpture gives a taste of the tropical beauty of his country.

that connotes. (See more on Tom’s website under “Stories.”)

Haiti, it seems, is ready for tourism. If “Tom” can work and play there, so can we. Pack up! LET’S GO!

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


The Rhythm of Life in Haiti is Jazz

Banderole-Festival-2015_web

 

 

 

 

Dave Brubeck, an accomplished jazz pianist of international acclaim was quoted once as saying, “Jazz is the voice of freedom.” What a great analogy. Jazz is free-form. Jazz is listening, attention, and focus; it is the creation of musical opportunity, allowing each musician to enrich the sound of the whole.

It’s a little bit like Haiti, actually. Very free-form. There is a certain way in which things fit together but it’s not rigidly written, as notes on a score. While visitors to Haiti often give in to despair at their sense of chaos, Haitians watch, listen, sense, and create a space for themselves in their society. They hear their note. They find their harmony. The rhythm of their lives is jazz.

 

"Angel Boy With Drum" SM174 by Winzor Gouin

“Angel Boy With Drum” SM174 by Winzor Gouin

How appropriate, then, that this Saturday marks the beginning of the 8th Annual Jazz Festival in the

"Angel with Saxaphone REC277"

“Angel with Saxaphone REC277”

Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. For the next seven days, in venues across the city, jazz musicians from 14 different countries will be performing in concerts, many of which are free. Additionally, there will be “after hours” jam sessions as well as jazz workshops for aspiring young Haitian artists. (A full schedule of events is available here.) http://papjazzhaiti.com/

One of the local headline artists is Thurgot Theodat, who, according the Festival website, plays “voodoo jazz. (Listen here.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UhHnDi6O9jA Just as an entire line of our recycled metal sculpture at It’s Cactus is “Voodoo Inspired” http://www.itscactus.com/catalog/VOODOO_INSPIRED-121-1.html Haitian jazz music can be too. And whyever not?

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


New water pumps – big improvement

IMG_6201Nearly five years have passed since the January 2010 earthquake rocked Haiti, and the entire world has been frustrated to the nth degree by the seeming lack of progress in the country’s recovery.  None are more frustrated though, than the Haitians themselves.  Yet, on our visit to Haiti in September, there was evidence that recovery is, at long last taking place.  I could tell you about the paved roads – three where there were none before –  the absence of the tent cities, and the presence of recycling bins and maybe I will in another blog one day.  But the thing that especially caught my eye, and the thing that crept back into my thoughts again and again both during our trip and afterwards were the water pumps.  Three where there was one before in the heart of Croix-des-Bouquets.

I was told that the pumps were a project of the Haitian government.  The government not only installed the pumps, but also is paying someone to collect 1 goude per fill so that the pumps can be maintained.  At first, I was concerned that a goude might be tough to come by for some, but I was told by a lifelong resident of the village that it’s no problem.  “Everyone has a goude,” he assured me. “And that way, when the pump needs to be fixed, the money is available.  It’s a good thing, really.”

Of course, having to pump water is still not the equivalent of turning a faucet at the kitchen sink.  Few if any homes in Croix-des-Bouquets have that luxury. But not having to carry water as FAR is certainly an improvement. If you’re like me, you’ve read time and again about women and children carrying water in developing countries and how the necessity of their labor precludes them from earning a wage, attending school and other fruitful activities which might enable them to increase their standard of living.IMG_6459

And I got to thinking:  How careful with my water usage would I be if I had to carry all that I used? Statistics to that effect are telling, to say the least.  According to the US Geological Survey website, the average American uses between 80-100 gallons of water  per capita per day.  The average Haitian uses 4 gallons per capita per day.  This, according to the United Nations is well under the recommended daily average of 5-13 gallons of clean water per day. The UN goes further to point out that if, as is typical, a young Haitian girl carries water to satisfy the needs of her entire family (average of seven persons) for a day, she will  be carrying at least six 5-gallon buckets of water, weighing at least 240 pounds.

As I watched the activity around one of the community pumps late one afternoon, I observed an elderly man with a young girl by his side approaching the pump.  Between them, they were carrying three empty 5-gallon plastic buckets.  At that moment, I decided to jump in.  I couldn’t provide them with indoor plumbing right then and there, but I could certainly pump a little water.

IMG_6556Let me tell you.  It’s hard work. I pumped out two buckets in quick succession but my sweat-soaked shirt and heavy breathing were clear evidence that if I was harboring any further gallant notions, they were about to expire – or I would. Thinking fast, I offered the pump handle to Casey and said, “I hate to steal all of the glory.  You can do the last one.” And the thing is, neither of us carried the water back to their house when we were done. But it made us both think twice about leaving a last little swallow of water in the bottom of the glass as we got up from dinner at the restaurant that night.  We drank every drop.

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

 


The Visual Feast: A peek into the workshop of Gerard Fortune


IMG_6075 (640x640)Where did the time go? Already it’s been a month since our return from Haiti – and such a great trip it was! Of course we spent a good deal of time in Croix-des-Bouquets visiting the metal artists, but we also took a trip up the hill beyond Petionville to Montagne Noire to pay a call on one of the pre-eminent naiive painters in the country, Gerard Fortune, It is nearly impossible to resist the charm and innocence of his paintings, so why try? We came back with an armload!

Gerard himself is a bit of enigma. In three tries to determine even the year of his birth, I came up with three different answers. In fact, I found out that a friend of ours asked him directly once and the reply was, “Well, I don’t really know.” The closest I can pinpoint is somewhere between 1925 and 1935. Working most of his adult life as a pastry chef, and also being a practicing hougan, Gerard began to teach himself to paint in the early 1980s.IMG_6084 (640x640)
In 1988, Selden Rodman published his masterful book on Haitian art, Where Art Is Joy, he included several of Gerard’s paintings – most in full-color plates. At once, Gerard’s place in the art world was established. Today, his work is part of permanent museum collections in the United States and in Europe, and is avidly sought by private collectors as well.

That having been said, he is a man of modest means. He lives and works in a two-room dwelling of cinderblock, mortar, and corrugated tin in the space between two towering mansions. Without running water or electricity, he and his older brother and younger sister, each in similar shanties nearby, share the chores of fetching water, laundry, and cooking. I use
the term “shanties” with a bit of reluctance. The word seems accurate, but it doesn’t convey the cheer of the brightly painted walls or the grace of the banana trees shading the windows, or the laughter of children playing outside. Theirs are the humble homes of the working poor, but they
are far from dreary.

IMG_6076 (640x640)Inside, paintings are everywhere. In stacks, hanging layer upon layer on the walls, and those in process on the table. A visual feast, to say the least. The hard part, as always,was choosing which ones to bring home.  Look here: http://www.itscactus.com/catalog/Haiti_Folk_Paintings-126-2.html  Now don’t you feel the same?

 

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

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