The Joy of Henna

Donna Fischer

donna fischer | artist next door | oct. 2015

The author receiving her first henna from Joy St. Pierre.When Joy St. Pierre greets me, she doesn't settle for my formal handshake, but also puts her arms around me in a gentle and sincere embrace. I'm wondering if she can tell I'm not much of a hugger. Her ease with human touch sets the tone for our meeting though, and I quickly settle down on the sofa next to her and prepare to get my first henna design. Her business name is Joyful Henna Designs, and it seems apt enough, as this artist makes people feel as if they've entered a spa for a rejuvenating treatment.

Developed out of a need to cool the body in the hot climates of the Middle East or North Africa some 9,000 years ago, the paste made from the crushed henna plant evolved into something that is both artistic and ritualistic. Also going by the name Mehndi, it adorns brides and members of the bridal parties in India and other countries, and it has taken hold in the U.S. If you really dig henna, you can book your spot at a three — day learning spree in California this October called, “Henna Con." Organic, non — toxic, and gone within ten days of application, henna captures some of that hippy feel from the '60s.

As St. Pierre sets to work on my left arm, she explains that it only took one henna application on her to get hooked. “I got a henna and I just fell in love with it." Already a seasoned face-painter at Celebrate DePere, she sought out henna as a new way to use her artistic talent and earn a little money on the side. She found the information and the supplies for her new avenue online and started practicing on her own leg. She claims it took a couple of years to get really good at applying henna. She's now a regular at the Broadway Farmers Market and the Downtown Green Bay Winter Farmers Market. Along the way she's met many friends who love to get henna, as well as other henna artists.

Working from a design idea I am showing her from Pinterest, St. Pierre says that henna is for everyone. A child as young as five or six could get one. She applies the henna ink to my arm with a cellophane funnel in a manner not unlike decorating a cake. The artist needs to squeeze and draw at the same time. I ask the artist if she uses the word, “tattoo" with her work. “I don't refer to it as a tattoo," she says. “I refer to it as henna body art because it's nothing like a tattoo. It's not forever, it's not risky and it's not painful. I liken it more to jewelry." And like jewelry, henna designs can be as personal as possible. People often bring her photos for inspiration. Ideally, she likes to see an idea in advance so that she can sketch it out. However, henna doesn't suit every image. It's an outline-intensive sort of look. No shading here.

Her most unusual request? “A girl asked me for a horse on her chest," St. Pierre replies. As much as I love horses, I won't be getting that one anytime soon.

Henna can only be grown in very arid regions of the world, like the Sahara Desert. “It grows like a bush," St. Pierre explains. “The women dry it for a few days and then they crush it like a powder and mix it with something acidic." Lemon juice is the acid of choice here. “You mix the henna and the lemon juice together in bowl and then place the bowl on top of the refrigerator where it's warm. Then the dye releases and I can see it's green on the bottom and black on top, and then I know it's good. So then I add a little essential oil and a little sugar to that. I just fill up a bunch of little cones and put them in the freezer." The freezing process is essential to halt the oxidation of the henna. One nice benefit is that henna works as a natural sunscreen, though it may be a little impractical for that purpose.

After twenty minutes (minus a little bit of time just getting situated), I have a finished henna artwork to carry home, on my arm. I love the fact that I'm wearing art on my very skin. The fanciful flower design sprawls up my arm with an intricate collection of curly vines and happy petals. St. Pierre applies a few final dots and wisps, and then asks me if I want glitter on top of the design. The eight year old in me can't help but say “yes!" The glitter and the paste will be brushed off before I go to bed, leaving the artistic design behind.

In the days following my henna application I have become accustomed to hearing, “Oh, I like your henna!" Even strangers tell me this. I like my design very much and it seems to hold up well, even with my longish showers. The temporary nature of the artwork has me puzzled still. I don't know how an artist can accept that their hard work and creativity simply disappears from its canvas inside of seven to ten days. St. Pierre brushes aside the idea that it's a downside. “Not at all. And the beauty of it is, it's a way for people to come back." She's clearly someone who finds her strength through interaction with others. “Everybody's stressed in life. So if they can come and sit down and have something nice drawn on them, it's just a nice relaxing kind of spa treatment. I'm so blessed that I get to meet people who become my friends."

When you get a henna artwork from Joy St. Pierre, you get more than a design. “We've never had anyone go, 'my henna sucks and I want my money back.' We've had somebody complain that it went away fast, but that's all relative, too. Everybody loves it because it is so beautiful and it feels nice. Part of it is the human touch. We hold everybody's hand, we talk to them."

Currently a student at NWTC for graphic design, St. Pierre says she's going to stick with henna. “My plan is to do graphic design and henna. I just decided that I could make all my own stuff for my henna business. I know everybody at the Farmers' Market, too. So I'm hoping that that's my niche and it just grows from there. And if I need to go get and job in an office then I will, but I'm hoping I can just do graphic design and henna."

Learn more about Joyful Henna Designs by checking out the Facebook page. St. Pierre plans to be at the Winters Farmers Markets in the KI Convention Center, but she is also available for individual appointments or group events. Applications begin at five dollars for small designs.

Donna Fischer is an avid fan of music, film and art. When she's not writing on these subjects you'll find her gardening or snowshoeing around Green Bay.

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