Interview with Lisa Butterworth
This summer, I got to chat with Lisa Butterworth, henna artist, blogger, supplier and teacher based in Brooklyn. Her podcast, Caught Red Handed, features renowned henna artists from around the world and provides listeners with a rare glimpse into henna history, practices and techniques. Her blog, Rani in the City, features posts, images and lots of useful information for brides. For more, check out www.kenzi.com.
How did you learn to henna?
I started in 1998 and the only thing I saw around was Loretta Roome’s book and the Navneet Indian books. So really I just started with my own designs and tried to remember what I could of Moroccan designs from when I was there. It was kind of perfect in a way because I wasn’t super influenced by what other artists were doing. I just had to see what came out of me.
Who are your inspirations?
In those early days, it was Nic and Kree and Luma. They were my friends online and they were the people posting really interesting work and it was really exciting. I look back at that now and realize I was so privileged to know them and kind of grow up with them in the henna world. Even now I still love their work a lot. They went off in really interesting directions.
How would you describe your style of henna design?
Back then, one of my friends, Maxx, called it “psychedelic amoeba” because I was just creating stuff out of my dreams and imagination. I wasn’t looking at design sources and creating stuff from it. I was more just seeing what came out of my brain, putting it out in henna and seeing how it looked in henna. So that was my style back then and I think that is still my style when you ask me to create something that is non-derivative. But now I do a lot of Indian brides and they want specific things, often something that is Indian so I try to give them Indian but they come to me because I do sort of a twist on it, modernize it and make it my own to make something traditional with my own modern twist–with my own creation incorporated into it. I think that’s true of Moroccan too. I’m always breaking rules. As soon as I learned Moroccan, I did something new with it.
What was your most challenging experience as a henna artist?
The most challenging was my very first bridal in an apartment in Jackson Heights. I had never even practiced bridal. This was for a Punjabi family, crammed into a little apartment and everyone was dancing and the floor was bouncing up and down. I was sitting on the floor with the bride. She wanted a design from a Navneet book and I hate copying designs because it’s so time consuming to look back and forth and try to make that design fit on this size hand so that was challenging. A challenge that I have a lot is dealing with the bride’s parents or grandparents or aunts and so Grandma said, “Oh I brought this henna. You have to use it on the bride. It’s good luck.” She had one of these cones with all of these chemicals in it and I said, “Oh I use these bottles for henna” and I showed her how I put the henna in the bottle but it was really coarse henna and it was jamming my tip. After I applied some of it, I switched to the other bottle with my paste in it when she wasn’t looking and she was so happy.
I think in general that’s the most challenging thing for me is dealing with the older women in the family. Like one time I was doing, maybe my second or third bridal, and the groom was Pakistani and the bride was African-American, who had hired me. While I was hennaing the bride, the mother-in-law saw me– she’s some high powered cardiologist used to getting her way, used to running the show–and she stood over me while I was hennaing the bride, peppering me with questions like “Where do you get your paste?” “What do you make it from?” “What is that bottle?” “How long have you been doing this?” After about half an hour of that and me answering her and keeping my nose to my work, she sat down with her son and his sister and said, “She is as good as the girls back in Pakistan.” I felt like I passed my final exam. Even now its hard dealing with aunties who are much older than me who insist on getting both sides of both hands hennaed at the party and it’s so hard to say no.
What was your most touching hennaing experience?
I’ve only been to one Indian wedding in my life, when the bride flew me to Jamaica because she was leaving New York a week before her wedding. I told her I didn’t recommend getting henna done one week before her wedding and said, “Why don’t you just fly me down?” She paid for me to go down there and she was incredibly generous. She put me up in a guesthouse and I hennaed for two days–I did her and a few family members the first day and the second day, totaling about seven hours. The rest of my time was supposed to be free but she invited me to brunch and the rehearsal dinner and they included me like a guest. They were very good people and really nice and generous and all their stories and speeches at the wedding were touching. It was so nice to be a part of it. I’m just an employee but she made me feel really welcome. It was really cool to finally be at an Indian wedding after being the henna artist…