By Troy R. Bennett, BDN Staff
Posted Jan. 28, 2014, at 1:34 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2014, at 6:34 p.m.
WESTBROOK, Maine — Whether applied to a pregnant belly, a bride’s hands or atop the bare head of a cancer patient, henna artist Mary Kearns’ designs are meant to be blessings.
“That’s what we’re asking for,” said Kearns.
Each free-flowing, temporary work of art carries its own unique energy as she channels it onto an individual, living canvas of skin. No two are alike and the creative energy itself dictates the patterns. It’s that energy that can make henna transformative.
“I think the natural gift of henna is that it does help mark times in people’s lives,” she said. “Whether it be a birthday or a wedding or a celebration of a religious holiday or a pregnancy — or helping someone receive beauty during illness.”
Like those moments, marked in time, henna is temporary.
Henna, also known as mehndi, is the age-old art of dyeing patterns on skin. The technique was known to ancient Egyptians and the Roman Empire. It’s still popular in parts of India and a few Arab countries. A brown paste is made from the henna plant and other ingredients. It’s squeezed from a tube or bottle onto the skin. When the paste dries, it crackles away leaving a reddish-brown stain that can last for weeks.
Mary Kearns came to Maine to attend art school from her native New York in the early 1990s. She never left. She taught herself the technique, though it was hard to find good information in the pre-Internet days, she said. Since then, Kearns has made a mehndi pilgrimage to India and traveled this country practicing her art.
The Lasting Beauty of Impermanence: Mary Schmaling-Kearns and The Eye of Henna
When viewing Mary Schmaling-Kearns’ henna art, an average citizen might begin to see some patterns emerge—in the branching, cosmic, free-flowing designs themselves, and in henna’s place on the broad historic map of artistic creation. If he or she were to reflect for a moment longer, get lost in the swirling curves of a beautifully crafted eye, dominant trends and movements across civilizations in art-making and –consumption might spontaneously align, make perfect sense. And if this regular, everyday citizen were invited to express in words the fruits of his or her contemplative labor, terms like reproducibility, ownership and permanence might seem increasingly important.
What do these words have to do with Mary Scmaling-Kearns, henna artist and owner of The Eye of Henna? Everything. Hers is the story of how art directly affects a person—like the pregnant women, cancer patients, and brides on whom Schmaling-Kearns has performed her work—and of technology’s massive reach that has made art viewable and enjoyable to an unthinkably vast audience.
Schmaling-Kearns first encountered henna in a magazine when she was a second-year photography student at Maine College of Art (MECA), when photography students still went to magazines for inspiration. “I was a photography major, and I saw a pair of hennaed hands in a magazine. I was [so] captivated by their intricacy and body art that I had to learn more about how to do this art form,” she says. But she had to feed her interest the old-fashioned way—by following the paths traced by card catalogues and good old intuition: “The Internet wasn't even a thing yet so I went to the library [and] looked at every book about India and all the National Geographics I could find that might have henna designs in them.”
It’s easy to delineate an oil painting’s creation and ownership. A local artist can sit for an afternoon on the Eastern Promenade in Portland, paint a tranquil seascape and, if she or he so chooses, sell the lasting product of time and skill. What’s special about henna is that it’s an art with deep roots in the cultures that practice it, and it has a significantly shorter lifespan—the Polaroid picture of graphic art (except it does not emerge, but fades, with time). Schmaling-Kearns used her background in photography and intense curiosity to preserve one-of-a-kind designs: “This was an art form that was not documented because it leaves the skin two weeks after it’s applied...so there are thousands of years of undocumented henna designs that have been created and a list of art from the Egyptians 5,000 years ago.” There are scholars whose lives are dedicated to studying brushstrokes in 19th Century French Impressionism, and yet henna has been relegated to ancient lists and has relied on the advances in photography to gain artistic standing and documentation.
“As a photographer I made a plan to document every design I did, and I went to India to explore and photograph hundreds of designs on women that I met on my travels” Schmaling-Kearns states.
She feels the importance of a lasting presence by the artist, too; but in creating henna she focuses on the process rather than the final product. “I've been doing this for about 20 years, she says. “I apply patterns…from flowers, nature, textiles and symbols that have meaning for my clients. I use their personal stories to help create a design that feeds their spirit while on their body.”
This brings up the question of ownership. There is no clear possessor of the henna artist’s work because it belongs on and to a body for such a short period of time; the power is in the dynamic relationship between artist, artwork and receiver. Schmaling-Kearns draws on her variety of talents to achieve this: “I definitely use my drawing skills when looking at the body and looking at it as a whole, especially [since] I've been a Reiki-Master teacher for 10 years, and when I'm sitting with the client there's energy that comes through to help heal the body as the art is applied…it is a very communal exchange,” she says.
What’s more, henna has heath benefits, which Schmaling-Kearns explains: “Henna is a natural herbal plant which has its own healing properties. Henna is cooling to the skin. It can help with swelling, heal cuts wounds and skin discomforts like eczema.”
In the end, though, Schmaling-Kearns’ work is inspired by a deep value for henna as it is—impermanent, singular, sacred. “It is creating sacred art, something that we have lost touch with, a tradition connected to decorating the body as [tribes] across the world have [done] for thousands of years preparing for transformation,” she says.
“I feel honored to be able to do the work that I do….I make connections with so many people…and I love that my work is art in service.”