Barbara Swope – a mehndi artist |

Barbara Swope – a mehndi artist

Aggie Zaremba
Special to the DailyBarbara Swope expresses herself on other people's bodies with henna paste.

Barbara Swope says she would like to become an art teacher when she finally grows up. In the meantime, she plays with henna, doing shows for kids.

Her whole family was artistic.

“My grandmother crocheted and knit,” she said. ” My mother was very talented too. They both started to paint when they turned 50. My sons work with glass and clay.”

Swope does henna tattoos, decorates furniture and fabrics with henna, makes spirit dolls out of sage and rock, and has recently painted her first watercolors and acrylics.

Asked why she’s chosen henna as one of her multiple ways of expression, she said that it’s a fun artistic outlet and, unlike real tattoos, it’s painless and temporary.

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It was her kids who helped her discover henna eight years ago.

“They wanted me to get a real tattoo with their names,” said Swope. “I liked the idea of adorning my body but without having a permanent thing. That’s when I decided to look for alternative ways of staining my skin.”

Her real adventure with the medium began when she found the web page of Catherine Cartwright Jones, a guru of henna art. Next steps included reading books and experimenting.

“I experimented on myself, friends and family members,” she said. “My very first attempts weren’t too successful as henna I would get in little hippie stores didn’t stain. Now I order it from California. It comes in a ketchup-like bottle. I put it into 12 smaller containers and freeze them – that way it’s good for up to six months.”

Mehndi mud (henna paste) is a mixture of the actual henna plant, which is crushed and sundried, lemon, lime juice, eucalyptus and camphor.

“A true henna takes about eight hours to stain your skin, ” said Swope. “This paste has camphor as an additional ingredient – it makes the whole process a lot faster.”

The artistic act of staining your skin with henna always starts with a lemon juice.

“Lemon juice is a great exfoliator,” said Swope. “It cleans your skin well and helps henna stick.”

After that, you can simply let your imagination work.

“Unlike real tattoos, henna designs fade over time so you don’t have to make a lifetime commitment to them,” said Swope. “They last from one to four weeks, depending on how fast your skin exfoliates. The less exposed to soap, water and rubbing, the longer they will last. Using olive oil instead of a lotion helps a lot too.”

Traditionally, henna is used to create intricate designs on the hands and feet of women from the Middle East and Africa in preparation for special ceremonies. Arabic mehndi designs depict large floral patterns. Indians use fine, thin lines for lacy floral and paisley patterns covering entire hands, forearms, feet and shins. Africans, on the other hand, like bold geometric figures. Besides the esthetic value, henna designs have symbolic meanings, like good health, fertility, wisdom or spiritual enlightenment, which vary from country to country. Among locals, according to Swope, butterflies and daisies as well as Chinese and Egyptian symbols are the most popular patterns.

“From time to time I also get a request from a pregnant woman to draw a rabbit on her stomach – it symbolizes a fast delivery,” she said.

Barbara Swope is one of the artists participating in the upcoming 6th annual Studio Tour. The event kicks off on Saturday, Nov. 8 and continues through Sunday, Nov. 9 from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Swope plans to have her henna art demonstration at the United Methodist Church of Eagle Valley in Gypsum.

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