Middle East tradition made local


The intricate patterns on her left hand, dark in color, noticeable yet delicate, tell a story. Henna may only last for a couple of weeks, but Cora Fox, a senior behavioral analysis major at UW-Eau Claire, said she will be invested in the art form for life.

Her interest in henna all started when she went to visit her grandparents and ran across some flea markets that had a simple henna booth. She said she recalls paying $25 for a simple design, but that simple design was all it took to spark her interest.

“I can be as creative as I want, and it goes away,” Fox said. “I don’t have to worry about that business meeting or the interview down the road, and it’s also a  way that I can express myself because it’s completely me.”

Henna tattoos are made with a plant based dye. The artist takes the powder of the henna plant and mixes it with essential oils. The essential oils are what lets the dye seep into the skin, but the henna is what actually dyes it. The tattoo will last from around 10 days to two weeks, Fox said.

Fox has been practicing henna since she was 14 years old, but three years ago, she created her own professional business called Flower Child Henna. She was discovered by a woman who does henna in Minneapolis. The woman invited her to attend henna art meet-ups where artists from Wisconsin and Minnesota gather to practice the art on one another.

Along with being a student, she is also in many other organizations such as the sorority Sigma Sigma Sigma, serves as the chief of staff on the Student Senate, and works at the Campus Autism Program. She said she is always busy, but she makes it work.

The art itself is important to her, but the tradition of how henna started she said is also vital. Fox said the tradition started in India and the Middle East area where women are usually set up in arranged marriages.

“Two or three days before the actual wedding they have every woman in the bridal party get henna,” Fox said. “The bride gets henna from her fingers tips to sometimes past her elbows and from her feet to past her knees.”

The henna isn’t just for looks. Fox said it is also a way to increase intimacy on the wedding night since the bride and the groom may not know each other very well but are still expected to consummate the marriage .

“They made it a game,” Fox said. “They hide the groom’s initials somewhere in the design and on the wedding night if he finds his initials, he will get to wear the pants in the relationship, but if he doesn’t, she will, so they take pretty good care to hide it.”

Since henna can hold so much meaning, she said she always plans out her designs ahead of time. For example, Fox has done one traditional belly blessing in which she draws henna on a pregnant woman’s belly.

“It’s so exciting, because it’s a chance for me to share my art work with someone, to get the chance to know who they are and to make that connection,” Fox said.

Fox said in general the art is mainly freestyle work, but there are stencils.

“True henna is free hand design and artist expression,” Fox said. “It’s extremely rewarding because at the end when you see their faces and how people are excited to see the finished product.”

When dealing with criticism, Fox said she is not worried.

“I practice so much that I wouldn’t be doing it on people if I didn’t have the confidence to do something like this,” Fox said.

She said she also gets comments from people saying she should be doing real tattoos, but Fox isn’t so sure.

“With henna, it stains, it’s a forgiving art,” Fox said. “But on a tattoo it’s painful, you would mess up too bad, ‘ I love Ken’ that’s what you get.”

Fox said she believes henna is a beautiful form of art, but there are some sides of henna that people may not understand. Black henna, which Fox said is not even real henna at all, but hair dye, is something many people ask for or get without knowing the dangers, is a highly dangerous substance that can either leave a rash on the skin or scar or blister an individual.

Fox said it contains the chemical p-Phenylenediamine (PPD), which everyone is naturally allergic to.
“It’s terrible,” Fox said. “You can’t use it at all in the United States but it’s very popular in Somalia as well as India. It’s cheaper to make, it lasts long on the shelf so they think that’s a good trade off.”

The nature of black henna has given the traditional henna art a bad name, Fox said. She never uses any chemicals in her dye and makes it herself to ensure that it is the best quality and non-harmful.

Because Fox is so busy, she has a little help from her roommate and sorority sister, a senior  behavioral analysis major Talia Crabb and her mother, Sue Fox.

“She can literally do any design that a person wants to have,” Crabb said. “We can look up pictures online and she can do it freehand.”

Crabb said there is never a dull moment when living with Cora Fox. If the henna needs to be done at night and be dry by morning, Crabb said sometimes she will sleep with her arm up to avoid getting little pieces of the henna in her bed which makes for a comical experience.

“It’s her own creative quirk,” Crabb said. “I never really met anyone else who does henna, it’s her own talent, and not many people you know at Eau Claire have their own art business.”

Cora Fox’s mom also helps her out as being what they call a “booth babe” at events. She helps keep Cora Fox organized and the henna booth functioning while her daughter is busy doing designs.

“We are a close family,” Sue Fox said. “But as this point, I guess because Cora is 21 and she has moved away from home, I kind of cherish that time that I have with her because not many moms have a chance to do that. It’s improved the time that I get to spend with her now that she is all grown up.”

Cora Fox said she feels as though henna may stay mainly a hobby, but it won’t ever be gone from her life forever. She said she plans on incorporating the art into her future wedding and keeping the
tradition alive.

“It’s so incorporated into my life, I don’t ever want to lose it,” Cora Fox said. “Why not have my ladies who are my henna family decorate me for my wedding? They helped get me to where I am now, why not the next journey in life?”