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What I Learned at Henna Camp

Occasionally we have moments that spin our perspective like a top. My little field trip to NEHG and TAAB was one of those moments. After a week and a half to recuperate, I’m ready to bring it out into the daylight and poke it with a stick a little.

NEHG was sort of comfort food. It was exactly what I expected. It was a pretty typical henna conference with a lot of the same faces and lectures, but some new ones as well. Daytime for these events always feels, to me, a little like a baby shower, but where the games should be there are lectures and demonstrations instead. There’s lots of people. Some are friends, some you only see on special occasions, and some are total strangers. The nights are basically slumber parties with wine and lots of skin. (How is it that so few men have discovered these gatherings!?!)

This may sound like a pretty drab description of an event, but that’s not my intent at all. It was a well put together gathering. I enjoyed seeing my friends and meeting a few new people. I got to see a new city. I learned a little, I taught a little, and I left feeling comfortable with my position in the world. I even did two hennas that I enjoyed! I can only share one, because the other has nipples 🙁

My art on BridgetNo, this isn’t anything special or new. No real creativity expressed here, but it is pleasant to look at and fairly well executed. The other one, the secret one, was more interesting. It had the slightest bit of my own style.

Then I jumped on a plane, headed to Kent, and hit the “reset button” for TAAB. It was completely different.

I didn’t really know what to expect for TAAB. I knew it had a broader focus. I knew that there wasn’t a whole lot of buzz about it in the henna community. What it was in the end was something that couldn’t really have been planned for by anyone. Attendance was just this side of nonexistent. This was actually really cool in a lot of ways for those of us who were there. We were able to have lectures in a much more conversational way. We were also able to just skip right over the newbie level lectures that we’ve all heard, including one of mine -Presenting for Schools and Libraries. There was no one at TABB who wanted to teach at schools and libraries that didn’t have a pretty good grip on it already. For me the highlight of the planned events was a reading by Dr. Elizabeth Howard of her essay about having her nose pierced in India. She is a lovely woman who was kind enough to offer us her skin as canvas, as well as a few “story times.”

It was the unplanned stuff at TAAB that knocked me off my equilibrium.

A personal note, before I really dig into this: I’ve been struggling a lot with getting “off book.” When I say that I don’t mean that I’m just now learning to create my own designs. I’m great with off the cuff festival art, and wedding-guest-mehndi. I’m even pretty good with creating my own more interesting stuff… on paper first. I made a very conscious decision to keep working developing my “off book” skills despite the rather intimidating company. The longer the week went on, working next to very impressive artists, the more I choked. My work got more and more oppressed, despite the fact that I didn’t work from design books or sketches. Finally toward the end of the week, I pulled out my sketch book. By that time, it was too late. I was already too discouraged. I couldn’t even execute the ideas in my sketches properly.

I went to bed Wednesday night feeling pretty miserable. I had decided that I was going to have to write TAAB off as an artistic loss. I’d just have to accept and enjoy the fact that I’d just had a rather pleasant working vacation with a few old friends and a couple of new ones.

On Thursday morning I started to dig into the paint. To be honest, I’ve been avoiding the paint brush for years, except to work on the cheesy beach mural I did for my Dad. It felt really good! In the end, I was able to make something that I thought was kinda pretty! It was a huge relief.

So… what I learned at henna camp:

1. I know my shit. I have a pretty impressive working knowledge of henna art, history, technique, and especially science.

2. Now that I don’t run a store, I don’t plan to go to these shin-digs on my own dime, except maybe the cost of my travel. I don’t need it. I don’t have much else to learn that I can’t learn from my friends for free. I don’t have anything to market outside of my own area.

3. And this is the most important. I’ve been allowing my art to suffer. I haven’t been challenging myself. I haven’t held myself to high enough standards. I’ve been spending too much time focused on the kind of art that generates business from the lowest common denominator. Flower, rose, paisley, star, flower, rose, paisley, star… I have a lot of work to do.

4. I forgot how to clear the slate by walking away for a minute. I’ve always thought that the reason I’ve been able to focus on henna for so long is because it has so many faces to study: Culture, History, Science, etc. If I get board with one, I can move on to the next, and come back later. That’s the way I always used to paint, before I abandoned the brush. I would have 2 or 3 paintings going at a time, so if one started to frustrate me I could work on another. I’m in the same fix now.

I’m going to take my henna art back “on book” for a while. It just doesn’t feel like I’m quite ready to grow artistically with henna just now. I hit a wall. Instead, I’m going to spend some time with a brush, both on skin and canvas, and see if that opens something in me.

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