Henna

Henna artist Chelsea Stevenson, creator of Cardamom & Clove Henna, demonstrates her designs on the hand of client Sherry Knox, of Camp Springs. 

Kenneth K. Lam. Baltimore Sun

GLEN BURNIE, Md. — At first, henna was just Chelsea Stevenson’s hobby.

She was a teenager the first time intricate designs were inscribed on her hands, using a dye made from powdered henna plants. It was her name, painted in Chinese characters on the inside of her wrist, like a tattoo. But she later revisited and researched the art form as an adult in attempts to mimic more traditional designs on her own. She would drape her hand with patterned stains of flowers and geometrical shapes. It was something that kept her at ease, especially during hard times, she said.

“I put henna on as an act of self-care. I didn’t have someone who I could fall back on,” said Stevenson on a recent Tuesday in a Glen Burnie coffee shop. She recalled her days as a single mother living in Nebraska, when she couldn’t afford to splurge on manicures or visits to the hair salon. A few dollars, however, could buy her a cone of henna to decorate her hands and feet multiple times. “I had to find a way to console myself and encourage myself and ground myself during that time because there was no other option.”

But in 2011, during a trip to the grocery store with the last money she had in her bank account, henna became her livelihood.

“The (cashier) there was like, ‘Oh my God, what is that? I’ve never seen that. … It’s really beautiful. Would you do it for me? I want to pay you.’ ”

Stevenson agreed, and that day, her henna business was built.

Today, a married mother of three, Stevenson, 27, runs Cardamom & Clove Henna, an independent business in which she consults other henna practitioners, teaches henna classes to novices and professionals, and showers women of all backgrounds with ethereal designs, often including floral themes, all with an underlying focus on self-care and safety.

This year alone, Stevenson said, she has served well over 650 customers with her services, priced by time, ranging from $30 for 15 minutes to $100 per hour. (Her most popular service, she said, is 30 minutes for $50, which is enough to paint the tops of two full hands or feet). Stevenson has taken her talents to other parts of the country, including Denver, where she hosted henna parties, and to Fort Worth, Texas, where her business took on the name Cardamom & Clove Henna, thanks to an aromatic tea-based mix she blended with the two spices. Now, residing in Glen Burnie, where she moved to be closer to family, Stevenson, a biracial Muslim woman, said she has found her ideal clientele — women like her.

“I love working with minorities. That is the majority of my client base,” Stevenson said. “A lot of time they are single. They are mothers. They have a lot of circumstances within their personal life, which causes them to be forgetful about self-care, and so I speak to that. My goal … is to make sure that they leave their session feeling empowered and encouraged and with a little bit of henna.”

Cynthia Atkinson, 48, a mother from Fort Meade, said a henna session with Stevenson is like therapy, not only because of the slow-tracing movement on her body and the endearing results, but because Stevenson creates a safe space, whether it be at her home or at a local Starbucks.

“I just was sold. Sold. She impressed me with how much of herself she shared, versus the other artists that just kind of wanted to sell their work and not really kind of share their story and their background, so when I met her I feel like I had known her forever,” said Atkinson, who booked her first appointment with Stevenson nearly two years ago after searching for her online. Today, they’ve developed their own relationship, with Atkinson seeking her out whenever she needs a “time-out,” enlisting her to do elaborate designs on her shoulders and back for celebrations, like her forthcoming wedding anniversary, in which she’ll hide her husband’s name in a winding design that will cover her back.

“When she does my henna, I don’t see what she’s doing. I don’t tell her what I want. I just say, ‘My arm is your canvas, and go to town with it.’ I only see it when it’s done,” said Atkinson, adding: “You will be more addicted to her than you are to henna. … She has this soul about her.”

Stevenson also hosts a “Let Me Crown You” initiative on her website, in which she accepts nominations for women who are undergoing cancer treatment or other medical conditions that cause hair loss. In turn, she decorates their heads with henna “crowns,” ornate designs on the scalp, sometimes imitating hair or jewelry, in hopes of making them feel empowered — all free of charge.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not approve of applying henna to the skin. Because Stevenson’s clients, especially those undergoing treatments, can be susceptible to irritation or infection, Stevenson preaches and prides herself on henna safety, advising against use of unnatural henna, which can contain other ingredients “intended to make them darker or make the stain last longer on the skin,” according to the FDA. “Black henna” — as the name suggests, it’s black — is often mixed with coal-tar hair dye, which can contain p-phenylenediamine and cause allergic skin reactions. PPD, as it’s more commonly known, is banned from skin applications, thus making many forms of “black henna” illegal.

Thus, Stevenson creates her brown, all-natural stain from the imported and powdered plant Lawsonia inermis, also known as henna, and mixes it with a tingly, aromatic combination of sugar, water, an essence like a floral water for scent, and an essential oil with a high alcohol content like lavender or cajeput to help stain the body. Then, using a thin plastic cone filled with her signature concoction, she adorns hands, feet, bellies, crowns and concealed parts of the body, or what she calls “boudoir” or “lingerie” henna, in a swirling motion. For an added touch, Stevenson often dusts the henna with a sprinkle of glitter, which stays on until the paste itself dries and flakes off, revealing a temporary brownish design on the skin, similar to a temporary tattoo. The stain can last around a week and a half on the hands, up to two weeks on the scalp, and three weeks to a month on the feet and other areas of the body where there is less exfoliation.

Sherry Knox, 46, of Camp Springs said she would get henna every week if she could.

“It’s just pretty. It’s very girly. It makes you feel special,” said Knox, who, as a stenographer, works with her hands. “I love to watch my hands when I have henna on them and see how pretty it looks when I’m working. Since I never was a girl who got tattoos as a young person, this is my way of having some fun.”

While many people associate henna with tradition and large celebrations, like religion, weddings or festivals, Stevenson said her obsession with the body art stems simply from its beauty and its meditative qualities, which lie in its formulaic, precise application. The word “henna,” also known as “mehndi,” refers to the dye and stain itself, the plant from which the dye is derived, as well as the act of applying it to the skin, Stevenson said. It’s rooted in cultures across the world, including in Middle Eastern and Arab communities, western Africa, South Africa and India and other countries throughout Asia.

Stevenson has explored and studied its various forms for years, drawing upon the many elements, designs and motifs of traditional Indian henna, and taking on influences of Arabic, Moroccan and “khaleeji” henna, which refers to henna styles native to countries in the Persian Gulf like Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, for a contemporary style.

“I love her style, because I can’t do it,” said Jamilah Zebarth, the founder of Jamilah Henna Creations, who has been doing henna for more than eight years. “She mixes that with Indian and Arabic (style) really well. It’s a lot of fine detail but not too much coverage. She really does have a detailed and unique style.”

Zebarth met Stevenson around four years ago at a henna conference. Now, the two co-organize their own, the Henna Society, which will take place in Zebarth’s home state of Connecticut in its second year and will feature workshops and classes for those looking to improve their henna skills, Zebarth said. There, Stevenson will host an after-hours class on “Gulf-style” henna, as well as a course on contracts for artists, putting an emphasis on the legal and business side of the art.

“She really knows what she’s doing,” said Zebarth, complimenting Stevenson’s business savvy, but a lot of what keeps people coming back to Cardamom & Clove Henna has to do with Stevenson’s spirit.

Erika Porter, 38, of West Baltimore first got henna from Stevenson earlier this summer, getting both tops of her hands painted, in what she describes as a grounding experience.

“I had someone ask me, ‘Why do you get henna? It rubs off,’ ” Porter said, but she compared it to getting her nails or hair done. “It just makes you feel pretty. When I go to her, she kind of gives me best friend, sister, psychiatrist. Not only when I go to her do I end up looking great, I always left feeling wonderful positive. … She injects me with the positive energy.”

And that was Stevenson’s goal, she said, providing an experience that would make her customers feel empowered and at ease, and that would keep them coming back.

“When I’m with the clients, I’m hearing them. I’m giving them a safe space. I’m celebrating with them or I’m grieving with them, and it’s about that connection. So, there’s this intimate sort of bubble that we create together both through touch, through the henna, and then the conversation that’s being had,” Stevenson said. “I jokingly say that you’ll come first for the henna because the pictures are pretty, but you’ll come back for the experience that you had. You’ll come back for something else.”

Copyright 2017 Tribune Content Agency.

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