STORY TAYLOR WALKER | PHOTOS Jesse Bridgewater
It’s not uncommon to recall visual memories more accurately than words. A missionary in southeast Asia understood this phenomenon when he used henna to etch interpretations of Bible stories onto the hands of women who did not have the luxury of studying from a book. The art, continuously in their line of sight, allowed them to commit the stories to memory and easily call up details to share with others.
“That was a point of inspiration for me,” said Joanna Russell, owner of Kingdom Henna. Her temporary henna tattoo creations are often beautiful depictions of Bible verses meant to be displayed prominently, ensuring that “Every time you look at it, you’re reminded to focus on the good things.”
Joanna’s process begins with a custom blend of organic Rajasthani henna powder, made from dried, ground-up henna leaves. She adds organic cane sugar, lavender and cajuput essential oils and water, mixed to form a paste. The paste is placed into a cone and piped onto the skin like a baker squeezing fondant patterns on top of a cake. The freshly drawn pattern sits on the skin for as long as possible before the dried paste is scraped off, leaving a bright orange stain behind where the paste once was. The orange slowly develops into rich, red-brown designs that last between a week and 10 days.
While many entrepreneurs build a business around a talent they already have, Joanna will be the first to tell you that her experience was the complete opposite. In fact, she started Kingdom Henna before even trying henna herself. At the time, she knew nearly nothing about the art of henna. “I was so sure that it was something I needed to do,” she remembered. “The idea wouldn’t go away.” Drawing inspiration from scripture, nature and even calligraphy, Joanna’s diligent practice turned into an undeniable talent.
In addition to hosting a booth at local festivals, street fairs and the Saturday market, Joanna travels to private parties and events to decorate hands, ankles, forearms and even pregnant bellies. Her “coffee shop henna” appointments are popular with clients who prefer to relax with a latte in one hand and a henna artist at work on the other.
My first henna tattoo was in a similar setting. I sat in a coffee shop with Joanna, mesmerized by the formation of detailed flowers and leaves that flowed freely from the cone she held expertly in her hand. “I want people to feel important and like they matter,” she said to me, winding loopy vines up my finger. “They’re worth being adorned, and they deserve to feel beautiful and express themselves.”
I looked down at my new accessory. It struck me that this temporary design was not reserved for a certain race, religion or rite of passage. Instead, it served as a statement piece and a symbol of joy. Joanna’s work invited strangers to chat with me and friends to inquire about my henna experience. It gave me something to share with others. It brought people together.