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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

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

A Poet’s Vision of Croix-des-Bouquets

IMG_6339 (640x640)

While doing some research online, I stumbled across a poem entitled “Ode to Croix-des-Bouquets” on a website coincidentally called, “Beyond Borders.” This is not the wholesale Haitian metal art company owned by Janet and Joel Ross, but a charitable organization in Washington, D.C. that is working in Haiti to end child slavery. (They are beyondborders.net, while Janet and Joel are beyondbordersfairtrade.com) The author of the poem, Marcus Ellsworth of Chattanooga, TN, visited Haiti as part of an artist’s pilgrimage a couple of years ago. While in Haiti, the group ventured out to Croix-des-Bouquet and Ellsworth was moved to jot down his impressions in verse. So instead of writing my usual blog, I thought sharing his poem with you would be a pleasant change of pace. His evocative words quickly bring me back to Haiti in my mind….


“Ode to Croix-des-Bouquets”  By Marcus Ellsworth

There are secrets one can only revealIMG_6427 (640x640)
with a hammer, a chisel, and skill.

Kneeling at the edge of the steel sheet,
like a fisherman in his boat
on deep still waters
breaking the surface
to catch the truth of the heart
and bring it up into the sun.

IMG_6348 (640x640)Hammers pounding as thunder
Chisels falling as rain
Hands summoning patient storms
that awaken life
from the quiet metal

Angels come to dance
Flowers bloom immortal
Spirits gather
to laugh, and rage, and teach,
IMG_6180 (640x640)and be made solid for our eyes and hands

Such is the gift of steel and those who mold it like clay
Listen to the sounds of Croix Des Bouquets
This is the sound of dreamers bending the world to their will.


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

The First Day of Spring

Lovely floral scene struck in metal by Haitian artist, Charles Luthene

Signs of spring in metal: Growing The Flowers by Charles Luthene

While Casey is back in California, madly selling metal at the San Francisco Flower Show, I am still on the East Coast.  In Washington, D.C., now and I awoke this morning eager to greet the First Day of Spring.  With joy and anticipation, I went to the window and  raised the blinds to behold what Mother Nature would reveal.  Well, that Mother Nature, she’s quite a character, with a well-developed and somewhat ironic sense of humor.  Today, on the first day of spring, it snowed.

This should not be.  Average temperatures for this area range in the fifties by now and teasing into

These new buds are just going to have to tough out the unseasonable snowfall.

These new buds are just going to have to tough out the unseasonable snowfall.

the sixties by the end of the month. Today represents a full fourteen-degree shortfall, according to the historical weather record.  Now, I know that averages are AVERAGES, i.e. the compromise between the lowest recorded temperatures and the highest.  But COME ON!  It’s the First Day of Spring!  There should be something cosmically sacred about that, right?  Surely Mother Nature has an intrinsic obligation on the First Day of Spring to bring forth a day bright and glorious, emblematic of the season of renewal and rebirth.

You would think.  Or at least you might allow yourself to hope.  But Mother Nature clearly has a mind of her own.  Spring will come, but at her pleasure and in her own time.  We mere mortals in the Middle Atlantic will simply have to wait.


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Dog Lover? How Interesting…

Love the dog

The newest member of the family!

A while back, some friends and my husband and I were at dinner with another couple of people whom we didn’t know well at all. It was late in the evening, cocktails had been flowing and someone asked the question, “What’s the most interesting thing about you?” We went around the table; the first person to respond was a fighter pilot, the second was a special forces operative, the third was an Olympic gymnast, and then it was my turn. My heart filled with dread, and my expression must have given me away because my friend, Laura offered helpfully, “Why don’t you tell them about your dog!”

My dog. MY DOG! My very close, very dear friend, Laura clearly thought that the most interesting thing about me was my dog. Ouch. What’s worse is that a few short months after that dinner, our beloved basset hound died. Through my grief, I worried: Where does that leave me??? The answer was too uninteresting to contemplate.

gift ideas for dog lovers

Doesn’t this remind you of “Go Dog, Go!” See this colorful canine and more wonderful Ortega ceramics here.

Fast-forward 10 months and we get a text message with accompanying photo from a co-worker of my husband’s that read, “This two-year old basset hound is looking for a good home. Want to meet him?” Well, to make a long story short, we did more than meet him. We adopted him forthwith and Jaeger has quickly become a treasured member of the family.

He has also become very busy. After a slow – and it is tempting to call it serene – start he got to work eating the lower branches of our Christmas tree, along with four of the choicest ornaments. In successive days, he pulled an entire roasted chicken off the counter, helped himself to a bowl full of guacamole, gulped down whole stick of butter including the wrapper, and was narrowly folied in his attempt to make off with a half-pound Mr. Goodbar. At this point, I feel compelled to assert that we do feed him well and on a regular basis. Being a dog, though, I guess he feels that its always good to hedge the bet.

Painting perfect for the dog lover on your list

Erika Carter’s painting illustrates the dawning of a doggone great idea. More of her work can be viewed with a click.

My favorite escapade, however, was an invigorating sprint up the hill by our house early last Sunday morning. Oh what a merry chase through the neighborhood in my bathrobe and bare feet in mid-December! Who could fail to be cheered? Having neglected to grab the leash on my mad dash out the door, I got to carry all fifty pounds of basset back home. Great exercise, I’ll tell you.

In spite of all, however, I thank my lucky stars that Jaeger has come into my life. At least I am interesting again


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus



Haitian Visit A GREAT Success!

IMG_7206Last week, as you may know, It’s Cactus sponsored two Haitian artists, Cineus Louime and Wiseton Brutus, for a week of demonstrations at three events in the local Salinas area.  Read their biographies here: https://www.itscactus.com/the-artists/haiti.php

With all due modesty it was a great success!  There were many purposes to the visit, among them promoting the art and the artists who produce it.  In addition, we wanted to give these men the opportunity to see what happens to their art when it reaches this country, to help them understand how the art is organized, marketed and distributed, and also for them to meet the people who love and appreciate their work. Finally, we wanted them to have the opportunity to sell their own work and return home to share their financial and experiential rewards  with their families, their businesses, and their community,

To accomplish these goals, we first took them to the shop and to the warehouse.  At theIMG_7256 warehouse, they saw how their work is received, packaged, and distributed.  They noted the critical importance of maintaining high quality in their product and also the necessity for consistent levels of inventory to meet demand.  At the shop, they saw how their work is displayed, and how critical sharing knowledge and pleasing presentation is to the act of selling.  Cineus and Wiseton will use these insights and information to great advantage upon returning to their own workshops in Haiti.

From there, it was on to the markets! We participated in two local farmer’s markets in Monterey and a holiday bazaar, called “Flair on the Farm” outside Salinas.  In each case, the response was overwhelming.  All events were well attended and the artists were often surrounded with curious passersby who quickly became patrons of the art. To be completely honest, it didn’t hurt that producing metal sculpture creates a noticeable  racket. BANG, CLANG, CLANG, BANG! They would have been rather hard to miss. Nevertheless, their work was warmly and enthusiastically IMG_7396received, as evidenced by briskly turned transactions at the coffer. We are so pleased to report that at the end of those three sales events, Cineus and Wiseton earned over $3500 apiece.  In a country where the average daily wages is $2,  such a cash infusion will have a tremendous positive impact on their lives.   A huge and heartfelt “Thank you” to all who watched, visited, and shopped with us.  Your dollars make a difference!

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


It’s Never Over

All Souls Procession in Tucson 2013

All Souls Procession in Tucson 2013

According to the calendar, the Day of the Dead has come and gone for 2014.  But just because the calendar says so, doesn’t mean it IS so.  In Tucson, AZ, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.  The largest Day of the Dead celebration in the country will occur in the form of the “All Soul’s Processional” this Sunday at nightfall.

The Procession was born in 1990 in the mind of Susan Johnson as a creative means to express her grief.  Mourning the recent passing of her father and inspired by Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos observances, Johnson felt she wanted to honor her father in celebration and through performance art.  Her piece was enthusiastically  received and the Tucson art community was moved to perpetuate the Procession as a new and growing tradition.
This year, up to  100,000 participants are expected to parade on the streets of downtown Tucson for a two-mile long, brilliantly costumed procession that culminates in the burning of a large urn filled with handwritten offerndas from the public in memory of deceased loved ones. Inside the event are myriads of installation art, altars, and performers, some of whom have spent months in preparation for the event. The All Souls Procession, and indeed, the entire All Souls Weekend is a celebration of rememberance for those who have gone before.  Read all about the event here – and maybe even get inspired to create an “All Souls” event in your area! http://allsoulsprocession.org/
The Day of the Dead is wildly celebrated at “It’s Cactus,” too. The store and the website are filled all year ’round with Day of the Dead art in a wide variety of media, colors, shapes, sizes and price ranges.  (Click here to view the wonderous array. https://www.itscactus.com/catalog/Day_of_Dead-45-1.html )  At “It’s Cactus,” it just ain’t over when it’s over.  It’s NEVER over!
Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

The Birds and the Bees

As you know by now, we at It’s Cactus are always interested in how people use and display our products.  Therefore, when a gentleman at one of the recent retail shows approached the check-out loaded with four birds and three bees and declared, “I can’t resist.  I’m hanging these together,” we all started laughing appreciatively and applauding his wit.  Birds and bees.  Gotta love it.  We’ve all heard that time-honored, picturesque euphemism for sex, but where did it originate??

Apparently you have to go back to England in 1825, when Samuel Coleridge wrote his poem “Work without Hope,” to find the first use of “birds and bees” as a metaphor for human sexual activity.  To quote:


“All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair –

A great display idea and a chuckle-inducing visual pun!

A great display idea and a chuckle-inducing visual pun!

The bees are stirring – birds are on the wing –

And Winter, slumbering in the open air,

Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!

And I, the while, the sole unbusy thing,

Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.”


It might be a stretch, but it’s the earliest documentable hint of birds and bees together in that connotation.


Later, in 1875, American naturalist John Burroughs wrote a set of essays entitled, “Birds and Bees, Sharp Eyes and other Papers.” Burroughs aimed to present the workings of nature to children in a way that they could easily understand and appreciate. One might also leap to the assumption that his descriptions were vague enough for the comfort and refined sensibilities of Victorian era parents. His work does refer to bird and bee activity, but conspicuously does not include any specific reference to the phrase, “birds and bees” with regard to sex.  It is therefore curious to me that he gets any credit for the metaphor at all, but so be it.  Theories are theories and who am I to argue?

Finally in 1928, American composer Cole Porter wrote “Let’s Do It,” which lyrically presents the pretty metaphoric picture in the song’s introduction:


When the little bluebird
Who has never said a word
Starts to sing Spring
When the little bluebell
At the bottom of the dell
Starts to ring Ding dong Ding dong
When the little blue clerk
In the middle of his work
Starts a tune to the moon up above
It is nature that is all
Simply telling us to fall in love

Porter appears to have been making deliberate, if oblique, reference to ‘the birds and the bees’ and it is reasonable to assume that thereafter, the phrase became a part of the common vernacular.  Just for fun, I thought I’d listen to a Billie Holliday performance of the song on YouTube.  Wouldn’t you know it?  Her 1935 rendition didn’t include the introduction! I had to go to the soundtrack of Woody Allen’s 2011 film “Midnight in Paris” to hear the song performed by Conal Fowkes in its entirety.  So for the nostalgic and the curious among you – Voila! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eraOhezY23s



Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus/Beyond Borders

“Creepy Crawlers” and Other Garden Friends


“Flowers and Bugs” 3150 by Jean Sylvionel Brutus

ad7395ccb8072aca766cd4ff4c9c7d81[1]Remember the “Thingmaker” by Mattel and those marvelous rubber bug creations that you could make yourself with colored (even glow-in-the dark!) Plastigoop?  You poured the Goop into metal molds that you placed over a heating element and waited impatiently for the Goop to cook sufficiently and then cool sufficiently so that you could pry out your new astonishingly creepy “Creepy Crawlers” and amaze your friends.  Maybe you remember, and maybe you don’t. They came on the market in 1964 and disappeared quietly in the 1970s amid concerns for child safety regarding the heating element. Nevertheless, the “Creepy Crawlers” were marvelous and the burns that I probably did sustain while making them must have been minor and healed quickly, for I do not recall them at all.  Now thanks to Mattel, the moniker, “Creepy Crawler” refers to anything of six or more legs in my garden, flower beds or pretty much anywhere.  It is a convenient catch-all phrase for the entomologically challenged, which indeed, I am.

It’s kind of too bad, really.  “Creepy Crawlers” is a great name, but greater still are the REAL names of REAL bugs.  Take for example, “Green Lacewing Aphids,” or “Minute Pirate Bugs” or “Assassin Bugs” or “Spined Soldier Bugs.” What’s more, each of the aforementioned is great in the garden.  Voracious predators all, they feed on harmful garden pests which can destroy your labors of love in a twinkling. Healthy populations of these carnivorous insects can go a long way towards protecting your garden as it grows.

The good news is that, with a little advanced planning, you can encourage beneficial bugs to take up residence in a bed of your choosing rather easily. Include plants of various heights in your garden, including ground cover, which gives desirable dwellers a place to hide.  Taller flowers with composite blooms, like zinnias and sunflowers, provide attractive food sources to beneficial bugs. Additionally, providing a little water can be helpful.  No need for “your” bugs to go to the neighbor’s for a little refreshment.  Puddles that form after sprinkling can be sufficient.  If you do drip irrigation, place small dishes at intervals and keep them filled for your thirsty friendlies.   Mulch with generosity and put out large flat stones which can be crawled under for protection from heavy heat and mid-day summer sun.

Experts rightly advise gardeners to learn to distinguish the “good” bugs from the “bad” ones. For me, visual identification is one tough row to hoe, and proper nomenclature is yet another. I pledge myself to both tasks, but until I get the names straight I’ll just say, “Bring on the Creepy Crawlers!”


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

The Red Carpet


RND558 "Growing the Flowers" by Charles Luthene.  One of over two dozen new designs for 2014.

RND558 “Growing the Flowers” by Charles Luthene. One of over two dozen new designs for 2014.

Earlier this week, I was working on an email to let Beyond Borders customers know about our newest catalogue designs for 2014.  I was trying to think of some clever way of presenting them and came up with a Hollywood red carpet analogy.  “Rolling out the red carpet for our newest designs” was the pitch I decided to make, and then I began to wonder how Hollywood ever came up with the idea of using a red carpet as a symbol of high ceremony and exalted welcome.

Back in the days of Ancient Greece, red was a color reserved for gods and kings, and there is a mention of Agamemnon walking along a red carpet into his palace after his victory over Troy.  The use of a red carpet pops up again, centuries later in the United States, when one was rolled out to welcome and honor President James Monroe in when he landed by boat for a visit to Prospect Hill in South Carolina in 1821.

However, the “red carpet treatment” was not truly cemented into tradition and vernacular until the 20th Century Limited train line began using a custom red carpet to welcome and direct its clientele on board.  Operating from 1938 until 1968, the 20th Century Limited ran a high-speed luxury service between New York City and Chicago, catering specifically to the rich and beautiful.  Regular passengers were the likes of the wealthy tycoons and glamorous entertainers such as Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, and Bette Davis. (For a fun article and great pictures of this gracious and elegant mode of travel click here http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/node/225401/print ) According to Ann Henderson of Smithsonian Magazine, Hollywood rolled out the red carpet for the first time in 1961 for its Oscar ceremonies, and in 1966, when the Oscars were first televised in color, the carpet became instantly iconic. Today, the red carpet has become de rigeur for grand entrances of all kinds.  Therefore, roll out the red carpet.  Our new designs are HERE!


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

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