I am honored that Debra Varvi, longtime henna artist and founder of Henna Crone, took out the time to share so many realizations, memories, and tips for artists–especially those of us who favor henna. I hope you’ll check out her site and enjoy reading her interview as much as I did:
I discovered henna in early 1999 on a “ladies day out” shopping with some friends in Artesia, which is a “Little India” community here in Southern California. One of the ladies was from Iraq, I believe, and when we saw the photos of the lovely Asian brides with the wedding mehndi in the salon windows, she explained a bit about their traditions to us. We were enchanted! Soon after, I happened upon the book, “Henna Head to Toe” by Norma Pasekoff Weinberg. It was a lovely little book, an easy read, and it touched upon “Body Decorating, Hair Coloring and Medicinal Uses”. I love messy art projects, and this one seemed fun, so I loaned the book to my friend Valorie, who had also been part of the group from the trip to Little India. We found a box of henna powder at the local “India Sweet and Spices” deli and grocery store, and proceeded to make a fabulous mess in her kitchen. I smeared the aromatic paste on my palm, saw the resulting orange stain and that was it. Like a first hit of crack I was hooked!
It sounds trite, but the key to progress is practice, practice, practice. I started out by buying henna design books, mostly from the local bookstores, and copying the designs. I copied designs meticulously for the first few years. Day after day I would cover my breakfast bar with paper towels and napkins covered in design elements. I was struggling to master not only the elements themselves, like leaf shapes and paisley shapes and spirals, etc, but also trying to achieve smooth, clean lines. Luckily, this constant, obsessive practice was creating both the muscle memory and building up the library of design elements in my head that are necessary to achieve the ability to create designs without copying. After a few years of immersing myself in this pursuit, I gradually began to mix and match the design elements I was copying and eventually no longer had to copy.
Do you remember the first design(s) you ever did?
Oh yes! They were the simplest wavy lined vines, clumsy spirals, simple flowers made with teardrops, leaves made with pointy teardrops, and lots of dots to make it fancy! I gradually began to create larger, more elegant spirals and flowers with actual petals, scallops to make the edges of lines lacy, and open leaves which I could fill with a few lines and dots.
At first, I had only the books I could find, and the area I live in is not a vacation destination, so I didn’t know of any other henna artists. I was sort of working in a vacuum. I began to do henna at a local weekly market in my town. The experiences with my clients there had been pushing me into henna design which was more palatable to the western aesthetic. Though the people at the street fair who stopped by my booth liked the traditional designs in my books, and on my own hands, they simply couldn’t imagine themselves wearing them. The designs were too foreign and exotic to them. So they would ask for flowers they could recognize and even tattoo styled designs that they were more familiar with.
After a few years I finally got a computer and a friend turned me on to Henna Tribe online, which is primarily a forum format. After lurking there for a couple of weeks, hungrily devouring everyone’s posts and being overwhelmed by the beauty of their traditional work, I tried to gather the courage to introduce myself. I desperately wanted to be a part of this global artistic community that was such a wealth of richness!!! Even though I was enthusiastically welcomed when I finally surfaced and said hello, I quailed at the prospect of sharing photos of my work, which of course everyone encouraged me to do. Henna artists just love photos of henna! My work, having been shaped by the desires of my clients more and more, had strayed further and further from traditional design. When I looked at the tremendous work of Kenzi and Nic Tharpa Cartier, who were two of Henna Tribe’s administrators, as well as the work of most of the other members, I was terrified that they would simply denounce my work as ‘non-henna’ and more like ‘tattoo flash’. Finally, the desire to be a part of this community overcame my fear, and I figured out how to upload and post a photo. I cannot adequately express my rapture when the members not only accepted my work as it stood, but many actually offered praise! I have the online henna community to thank for my ensuing rapid artistic growth because of their incredibly generous support, with both technical information and kind encouragement.
Soon after being introduced to Henna Tribe, I heard of the Henna Page. I was stunned at the variety of design books available there! I had only been able to find a couple of traditional design books at the bookstores, and I had fortunately found Loretta Roome’s terrific book, “Mehndi, the Ancient Art of Henna Painting” as well. The design books on The Henna Page opened an entire new world of henna design to me! With books by Catherine Cartwright Jones, Kim Brennan, and Lezard, among others, I was thrilled to see the traditional henna design elements being used in exciting new ways, and new design influences from around the world being seamlessly employed! I always tried to give my creations the “mehndi” flavor that I loved, but I never dreamed that anyone else would be doing the same, and with such grace and inventiveness as I saw in those books!
I now find inspiration for henna design everywhere! From the art of cultures who have not traditionally experienced henna, to jewelry, architecture, textiles and to nature itself, I mine nearly everything I see for design ideas.
How do you go about creating a design?
My process is very organic. I certainly take input from my clients. It’s important to know if a person is fond of flowers or not, or if they love butterflies, stars and the moon, if they prefer delicate and fine or sensual and bold. I truly delight in asking people what they like. Sometimes the most random answers will inspire the most fun images. I take a lot of design information from the individual’s appearance as well. Their clothing and the patterns that may be on their shirt, their jewelry and accessories, can provide a wealth of not only style information but also pattern ideas.
When executing a design, I look at the body part that will be adorned; whether it’s the hand or the inner arm, the calf or the foot, the shoulder or the back – I determine the placement and the over all flow of the design based on how it will grace the body. I generally start with the main design element, such as the largest flower, and let the other elements naturally flow from that. I keep everything pretty much open to change. Because every line dictates what the next line will do, and every shape dictates what the next shape will be, the design sort of creates itself. Does that make sense? I’ll try to give an example… For instance, if a client wants a floral design which flows down one finger, they often indicate which finger they want the design on. I tell them, with a smile, I will do my best to make that happen for them, but often the design has it’s own ideas, and it’s best not to try to force things. I may start with a nice large flower on the back of their hand, but perhaps the petals I am creating do not reach all the way around and there is a space too small to fit a final, consistently sized petal there. I will not force an odd shaped smaller petal into that space, I will simply spiral out a vine and/or leaf shape. This looks far more graceful and natural. However, what if the position of this unintended spiral vine and leaf now make it nearly impossible to trail a vine down the finger that the client has preferred? I will look at the all of the elements of the design as they stand, as well as how these elements are resting on the shape of the client’s hand, which is also an element in the design as well, and let all of these elements; the flower, the vine/leaf spiral, and the client’s hand, determine on what finger the trailing vines and leaves will look more natural and balanced. That is the finger that will now be chosen. Because I have let the design choose it’s own direction, the balance and flow will be more effortless and pleasing. Which makes the client happy too.
What do you bring to henna design that is unique?
Well, I think I am primarily a ‘spiral’ henna artist. The spiral is my ‘go-to’ henna element. Spirals are incredibly versatile and have so much energy locked in them. They also confer a tremendous amount of movement.
I also rely heavily upon ‘expressive’ lines, lines which vary in weight. Expressive lines go from thick to thin in a single line. This gives a line lightness as well as weight and gives a shape dimension. Expressive lines are also more forgiving, which is great when working with henna! If I create a spiral that is wonky, or lopsided, I can make the spiral more graceful just by thickening the inside or outside of the opposite curves. This also speeds up and slows down the movement of the spiral.
I also love doing franken-creatures in henna. A sort of peacock, or koi, or even a horse-fish pieced together from henna elements, like Dr Frankenstein creating his creature from spare body parts, only less grisly and more fun!
Do you have an anecdote about a challenging henna experience?
Hundreds! LOL! The challenging experiences have taught me to be honest with myself and my client. And that part of my job as a henna artist is to gently educate my clients as well. I know my own artistic weaknesses, and it’s important that I let my clients know when they have requested a design beyond my ability. It’s wonderful how this often puts people at their ease and engenders an immediate trust between us. They know that I want them to have a beautiful design as much as they want it, and that that is my first priority. Other times clients will bring reference photos to me of a design that I find exciting and inspiring, but that I will have to change quite a bit so that I can turn it into a beautiful henna design. I do my best to not only explain how I will change the design so they will understand how the finished piece will look, but why I have to change it. Sometimes the reason is that I am working with henna paste (like drawing with icing on a cake) as opposed to a pencil or pen, or even a tattoo gun. Sometimes it is because my skills are simply not adequate to execute the design as it is, but if I change certain elements or aspects of the design, then I can feel more confident about brining it to a satisfying, or hopefully, even an inspiring conclusion. And then there are those times that the design simply seems doomed to be a train wreck. Sort of like an out of control train without brakes on a steep slope. Try as I might, I can’t seem to even slow the inevitable crash or derail it before we all perish in flames! LOL! Ok, that was a little dramatic, nobody has actually died yet from one of my terrible designs, but it really does feel like that sometimes!
How about a sweet henna experience/exchange?
Again, hundreds!!! How lucky am I that I get to touch someone’s life with the grace and beauty of this ancient adornment? I have come to think of henna almost as a copper wire, the conduit through which this amazing energy passes between myself and my client, the creation process, the pinning of this energy to their skin with line and shape, the intimate contact… it’s magical! It has taught me to trust those little impulses, both creative and personal, that much of today’s mad culture has taught us to mistrust. How many times have I been somehow inspired to ‘give a little extra’ to a client, perhaps thinking to myself that I simply want to feed my artistic desire to expand upon the design, only to find that the client is moved to tears because there is something in the design – an element, the placement, something that I am seemingly unaware of, that has touched them deeply at a time in their personal lives when they needed that symbol or even the simple human closeness and contact most? I don’t think of myself as particularly sensitive, but there is certainly something healing and wondrous about the henna experience. It is said that henna has it’s own ‘baraka’, it’s own spirit and energy. I believe it. I have felt it’s blessing.