Loading... Please wait...

Owls of a Different Feather

Owl sculpture by Max-Elie Brutus.  Coming soon to our catalogue!

Owl sculpture by Max-Elie Brutus. Coming soon to our catalogue!


Written for  Patrick, because he asked…


Back in October, when I was in Haiti, I was looking at an intricate sculptural depiction of the voodoo ceremony at Bwa Kayman that set off the Haitian Revolution.  There was a lot of symbolism worked into the scene, every detail fraught with meaning, so I was taking my time, looking it over very carefully and asking a lot of questions.  When I spied an owl sitting in a tree, I asked our translator about its significance. Roosevelt’s face visibly darkened as he replied, “Oh owls are bad – very bad. Evil.”  Then, he shook his head, “An owl has powerful black magic. You don’t ever want to mess with that.” I made a mental note to look into it further, and so here we are:

There are two different loas (Voodoo spirits) associated with owls.  The first and by far the most ominous is Marinette, who takes the form of a screech owl and is clearly the one to whom Roosevelt referred. She is believed to have been the Mambo priestess that sacrificed the black pig at Bwa Kayman.  Cruel, vicious, raging, and vengeful, she is greatly feared.  She metes out justice with a powerful, violent hand and possesses the ability to free people from bondage or send them into slavery, at her pleasure. Knowing that after the Bwa Kayman ceremony, slaves slipped their chains to freedom while French slaveholders were slaughtered by the hundreds, it is clear that Marinette is not to be trifled with.

The second loa associated with an owl is named Brise, guardian of the hills and woodlands. Though he appears to be fierce, with large, dark, exaggerated features, he is actually quite gentle and loves children.  Brise seems to be the basis of a widely recognized children’s folktale, which is elegantly retold in English in Diane Wolkenstein’s book “The Magic Orange Tree.” (For more on her book, click here http://dianewolkstein.com/projects/haiti-and-the-magic-orange-tree/ )

In the story, a shy owl encounters a lovely young girl in the woods at night.  They talk and agree to meet again and again and during the course of their encounters, fall in love and agree to marry.  The only problem is that the young girl has never seen the face of the owl and he is afraid to show it because he is ugly.  He ends up flying away, alone, ashamed, and unwilling to believe that he could be worthy of a lifetime of love. The girl eventually finds a new love, but her happiness is forever shadowed by the melancholy of her previous loss. Far from being fierce and powerful, the owl in this story is self-effacing and unsure. Pretty significant contrast, I’d say.

Then on the other hand, across the Carribean and a good bit of land mass are “my” owls; wise and all-knowing. What likely formed the basis for my line of thinking is a simple British poem written in the 19th century that I learned in second grade.  Bet you did too:il570xN264988494[1]

“The Wise Old Owl lived in the oak

The more he saw, the less he spoke.

The less he spoke, the more he heard.

Why can’t we be like that wise old bird?”

How different my impression of owls is from those depicted in Haitian lore! It has nothing to do with the bird itself and everything to do with the stories I was told as a kid. Cultural heritage.  Pretty interesting, isn’t it?


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

Cloudy with a Chance of Rain

One of a kind HT2706 by Jean Eugene Remy

It is a blustery day in my corner of the world and the weather can’t seem to settle on any one thing.  Dark clouds sail overhead, opening up occasionally to spill a little rain. Then they scurry on, and the sun makes a brief appearance, not bothering to stay long enough to warm up much of anything before it tucks itself back behind another onrushing cloudbank. There was a saying back in the Midwestern town where I grew up, something along the lines of, “If you don’t like the weather, just stick around for a half an hour.  It’ll change.”  Though I am far removed from there in both space and time, it is an apt description of what is going on over my head at the moment. What kind of audacity does it take to try to predict the weather, anyway?

The audacity of such as Robert B. Thomas, for one, who in 1792 began publishing what was then known as “The Farmer’s Almanac.” By studying solar activity, astronomy cycles and weather patterns, Thomas used his research to develop a secret forecasting formula, still in use today and kept under lock and key in a black tin box at the “Old Farmer’s” offices. Realizing the potential benefit of reliable weather information to the burgeoning agrarian population of the newly founded United States, Thomas set out to create an almanac that, “strives to be useful, but with a pleasant degree of humor.” In 1848, John Jenks succeeded Robert Thomas’ 50-year tenure and renamed the publication, “The Old Farmer’s Almanac,” reasoning that it had earned the title by outlasting numerous other upstarts who had entered the field and departed again.

Over time, “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” has had its moments of historical note.  Take for instance it’s being cited in the case against William “Duff” Armstrong by his defense attorney, who was none other than

Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln used an almanac to refute the testimony of Charles Allen, an eyewitness who claimed he had observed the crime in progress “by the light of the moon”. The almanac stated that not only was the moon in the first quarter, but it was riding “low” on the horizon, about to set, thus laying to question the veracity of Allen’s statement. (“The Old Farmer’s Almanac” proudly claims their part in the story, and though it cannot be absolutely ascertained that an “Old Farmer’s” was Lincoln’s source, there is little evidence to the contrary, and thereby it remains solidly in the company lore.) Years later, during World War II, a Nazi spy was apprehended with a copy of

“Blowin’ in the Wind” RND298 by Joseph Jean Peterson

“The Old Farmer’s Almanac” in his pocket. From 1943 through 1945, to comply with the U.S. Office of Censorship’s voluntary Code of Wartime Practices for press and radio, the Almanac featured weather indications rather than forecasts. This allowed the Almanac to maintain its perfect record of continuous publication.

And so how good are the “Old Farmer’s” prognostications, made as much as 18 months in advance?  In addition to Robert Thomas’ initial formula, state-of-the-art technologies are now employed in solar science, climatology (the study of weather patterns) and meteorology. (the study of the atmosphere) Forecasts emphasize temperature and precipitation deviations based on 30-year statistical averages compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. By “Old Farmer’s” own assessment their forecasts are 80 per cent accurate, though independent observers have judged them to be a whopping two per cent better than a random guess.

Think it will warm up tomorrow?

Skip To My Lou

“Skip To My Lou” RND458 by Jean Paul St. Charles

When new sculptures come into the warehouse, Casey often calls up and asks me to help name them. “Skip To My Lou,” quickly came to mind for this one and she said, “Oh, that’s exactly what had popped into my head, too!” We chatted for a while longer and after hanging up the phone, I noticed that the tune playing over and over in my head that morning was indeed, “Skip To My Lou.” How did the words go again?

Fly’s in the sugar bowl, what’ll I do?

Fly’s in the sugar bowl, what’ll I do?

Fly’s in the sugar bowl, what’ll I do?

Skip to my Lou, My Darling.

Did we ever skip rope to that song? I can’t say for sure.  I remember the “Minnehaha” rhyme and “Miss Mary Mack,” and another one that was something along the lines of a grocery list that finished up with an emphatic “And don’t forget the RED, HOT PEPPERS!” When you got to the “PEPPERS” part, the casual whirls of the rope instantly became furious revolutions; each one faster than the last until the girl jumping rope couldn’t keep up and missed, thereby ending her turn.

“Evie, ivey over!”

“Hey, I can play too!”

Nostalgically, I continued thinking of those silly rhymes and the countless elementary school recesses my girlfriends and I spent skipping rope.  Years later, the appeal still held. At our daughter’s sixth birthday party  all of the little revelers got jump ropes.  Somehow, the jump-rope event got juxtaposed with a round of dress-up and we had cowgirls and princesses and Red Riding Hoods all taking turns in the backyard.  Lots of giggles and maybe one banged up knee.  Missing the rope did have its consequences, but nothing a dusting off and a cool Sock Monkey Band-Aid couldn’t take care of.

Fast-forward to a not-so-far gone summer afternoon in Salinas, with a new jump rope for the youngest Riddell.

“Bluebells, cockle shells, evie, ivey over!”

And who says the girls get all of the fun?

Peter Rabbit – He’s not that cute

Peter Rabbit, plotting his next garden assault

In this morning’s mail, yet another gardening catalogue arrived.  I puzzle over this, wondering how I ever got on garden catalogue mailing lists because, you see, I don’t garden.  It is not that I am completely bereft of talent in that regard.  Everyone in my family gardens with skillful style.  It is in my genes to garden, of that I am certain.  So why am I not a gardener?  I blame the rabbits.

They aren’t that cute, you know.  Remember Peter Rabbit?  I don’t know why I should be sympathetic.  Farmer McGregor was the not the bad guy the illustrious Mrs. Potter made him out to be.  There was Peter, munching away on everything that the toil of Farmer McGregor’s broad shoulders and the sweat of his brow had brought forth.  Remember how Mrs. Bunny had bread and milk and blackberries (someone else’s, no doubt) for little Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail after Peter returned from his escapades? His family wasn’t going hungry.  Peter was just the kid in the candy store, caught with his hand in the jar and for my money, the true antagonist in the story. I was in Farmer McGregor’s corner from the get-go.

Everything I put out is apparently rabbit food.  It doesn’t come labeled that way.  I bought a bowlful of potted pansies once.  It was labeled “Color Spot,” but it was a misnomer. It was rabbit food.  Lasted a good four hours, before it was nibbled down to two leaves and a stem.  I found that experience pretty discouraging and several growing seasons went by before I tried again. With great hope, I went to the nursery and purchased a couple of jalapeno pepper plants and two different types of basil, but they were as before, gone in a twinkling.  The sun rose the next morning to reveal the meager remaining nubs.  But the kicker came when I saw a rabbit,

Tend the Garden – RND 292 by Johnson Cajuste

SAW HIM, eating my first beautiful pink cereus cactus blossom of spring, one rich, luxuriant petal at a time.  The plants had been a gift from my sweet neighbor, who had given them to me just before she died the winter prior.  HOW DARE HE???

Clearly, the time had come to consult the experts.  I went online to a gardener’s forum website and asked, “What do you do about rabbits?”  It turns out there are a number of possible solutions to the problem, and the online discussion was lively to say the least. There’s cayenne pepper, black pepper, and garlic – though I am unsure as to whether this is to be mixed with water and sprayed onto plants or worked into the soil and there was a considerable uproar over the potential damage to mucus membranes of small mammals, guilty or innocent.  Someone suggested getting a cat; another said used cat litter is a sufficient deterrent.  On this point I am uncertain as to where one without a pet cat comes up with used cat litter.  Do you borrow it?

Others weighed in on leaving it to natural predators, such as hawks and coyotes, but I have personally found that my local predators are either lazy or just not keeping up, leading me to wonder about the necessary ratio of coyotes to rabbits and further, how I might successfully relocate said coyotes to my backyard. Wouldn’t I just be exchanging one set of problems for another? In fact, digging and howling doesn’t seem to me to be a good trade-off. At the tail end of the discussion was “Don,” who said, “This is all well and good, but I suggest using a .22.”   Though they maintained an online silence, I wondered how the defenders of mucus membranes really felt about that one…

Audubon and His Birds – The Haitian Connection

Birds flying through the flowers, by Louiceus Antelus

While in Haiti with Casey a few weeks ago, she and I looked for new designs to introduce at the winter wholesale and retail shows.  Particularly, we were interested in garden and springtime pieces and did we ever find them! Flowers, trees, bees and butterflies, farmers in their fields, trees budding with fruit, and birds.   Oh the birds!  Nesting, winging, swooping, soaring, lovebirds, song birds, flamingos, swans, and more. An endless avian menagerie in the workshops of Croix-des-Bouquet.

Real-live flesh and feather birds are having quite the struggle for survival, given the heavy toll that deforestation has taken on their habitats.  Yet this is the land where John James Audubon, the great American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter was born.

Yes, you read that right.  John James Audubon, born in Les Cayes, in what was then the French colony of Saint-Domingue on April 26, 1785.  And though not all of the story is clear, it is intriguing, to say the least.  Of his own origins, Audubon wrote, “The precise period of my birth is yet an enigma to me.” There is considerable weight to the theory that it was not so much an enigma to him as it was a hesitation to disclose, what with legitimacy and claims to inheritance hanging in the balance.  The family as a whole was evasive on the subject. Long after he was gone, his own granddaughter wrote that Audubon was, in her belief, possessed of royal Bourbon characteristics and, “in fact, the Dauphine of France, child of the martyred Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette who mysteriously disappeared during the French Revolution.” He was also said to have been born in Louisiana, son of a French Naval officer and creole mother, who took ill on a Mississippi River flatboat moored at Nine Mile Point and died in childbirth. The city of New Orleans was only too happy to claim him as their native son and erected a bronze statue of him to emphasize the point.

It was not until 1917, a full 66 years after Audubon’s death that legal documents were brought forth by Audubon biographer, Francis Hobart Herrick.  These documents established that Audubon was born the son of the swash-buckling Captain Jean Audubon – a sometime gentleman planter and sometime privateer in the service of the French navy – and his creole mistress, Jeanne Rabine in their home in Les Cayes, Saint-Domingue. At birth, he was given the name Jean Rabine. His mother died a few months later under unclear circumstances and Jean went to live with another of Captain Audubon’s island mistresses and his half-sister, Muget Bouffard.  At the age of four, Captain Audubon became wary of the clouds of slave unrest gathering over Saint Domingue and fled with his two young children to his French homeland and legal wife of seven years.  Madame Audubon greeted the three with love and grace at the family estate near Nantes, France and raised the children as her own henceforward. When Jean Rabine was eight years old, his parents sought to secure his legitimacy and rightful inheritance by adopting him and changing his name to Jean Jacques Forgere Audubon.  Thereby, his status as a bastard child of Haitian origins were buried and remained so for the rest of his life.

From there, Jean Audubon’s story becomes well known, though

Portrait of John James Audubon by John Syme

Audubon himself was prone to embellishment.  He

claims to have been a student of art under the tutelage of court portraitist, Jacques Louis David, where he refined his artistic eye.  However, bemoaning the “boring nature” of his subject matter, that being still-lifes and backgrounds, he left David’s atelier after a few months.  In 1789, with his father’s encouragement and blessings, Audubon sailed for the United States to avoid conscription in Napoleon’s army.  After a few fits and starts, the handsome French dandy, Jean Jacques Audubon became John James Audubon, American woodsman, distinguished naturalist, and internationally acclaimed artist.  His magnum opus, “Birds of America” to this day remains a landmark work of art and ornithology.

Okay.  So maybe this is more information about Audubon and birds than you were looking for in one sitting.  But it could win you a round in Trivial Pursuit.  Enjoy your victory, with my compliments!

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

Double Trouble and The Marassa Twins

When a sculpture is selected to be sold in the Beyond Borders catalogue or on our website, we photograph it, give it an inventory number, and a name.  This one, for what may be obvious reasons, we chose to name “Double Trouble.” The impish looks on these faces, the hair standing on end, the shape of the mouths – all of that said, “Uh-oh” to us.  “Double Trouble,” absolutely.  It’s cute, it’s catchy.  Maybe someone with twins will buy it.

Well, it turns out that twins is exactly what the sculptor, Orelien Romaire had in mind when he created this piece.  But in his culture, images of twins do not symbolize cute and catchy “Double Trouble” at all.  In traditional Haitian belief, twins are Twins.  The powerful loa, Marassa Dossous Dossa, is a plural spirit representing blessings, abundance, the gift of children, the sacredness of family, and the divine. The Marassa Twins are invoked in very serious matters, and especially in the case of the mortal illness of a child.

These traditions of loa spirit veneration were brought to Haiti during the colonial period by the native Africans that were enslaved to work the French sugar plantations.  The Africans tried to keep their religious culture intact, but the French slave owners forbade the practice of any religion other than Catholicism. Period.  Attempts at any other form of worship were punished severely.

To get around the French, then, the slave population adopted a means of correlating their own deities with Catholic saints.  Catholic iconography was thereby appropriated and the The Marassa Twins came to be symbolized by Saints Cosmas and Damian, twin brothers who lived in what is now Turkey and were martyred in 297 A.D. by the Roman emperor Diocletian.

There, the similarities start to diverge.  Cosmas and Damian were physicians and standard-bearers of the early Christian Church.  Today, they are recognized as the patron saints of doctors, veterinarians, children, orphanages, confectionaires, and daycare centers and are invoked in prayer against hernias and the plague. However, there is a rather ironic footnote to add.  To have been canonized, of course, saints must have performed miracles.  The twins, Saints Cosmas and Damian performed a miracle of healing:  They successfully grafted the leg of a recently dead black man onto a disabled white man, who was thus able to walk again.

I wonder how the French slave holders felt about that…

Sign up for our newsletter

  • Information

View Cart Go To Checkout