Mt. Airy resident teaches ancient art of Henna

Feb. 1 was an icy night in Mt. Airy, but a group of 14 curious women of all ages shivered their way into artist and teacher Gina Gruenberg’s spacious home studio for an exotic lesson you don’t often see in the middle of a Philadelphia winter.

Gruenberg has decades of teaching experience in an eclectic array of fields, including sewing and quilting, vegetarian cooking, shiatsu massage, life casting, exercise, and French. With additional experience in acupuncture, she has made a career of nurturing the human body. Her new classes in the art of Henna are a natural extension of her interests.

“I’ve been touching people for many years,” she told her students on Friday night, explaining that “it’s an honor” to decorate someone’s skin with the staining paste made from crushed Henna leaves.

“It’s a blessing on the body,” she said.

In her studio, Henna workshop attendees sipped mugs of tea and homemade soup, enjoyed the warmth of a big white wood stove, and gathered around a large table strewn with dozens of books on body art across the world.

Some came at friends’ invitations; others came because they had dabbled in Henna in the past and wanted to know more.

“That sounds interesting. Why not?” said another.

Weavers Way staffer Jeanyne Hicks wore two name tags – one for herself and one on her rounded stomach. She came to have a Henna design applied to her belly – she is six months pregnant with her first child, a girl she plans on naming Tato.

Hicks said she was always drawn to tattoos, but her fear of needles and tendency to change to her mind made Henna seem like the perfect way to celebrate the impending birth.

An ancient art form

Henna “has such an amazing history,” Gruenberg said.

There are several varieties of Henna plant, all native to hot climates. Gruenberg added that Henna decorated Cleopatra’s skin, was in use as an “ancient cosmetic” up to 9,000 years ago, and may have arrived in India by way of Egypt.

With an especially important role in ceremonies and rites of passage such as marriage, Henna (still widely used today in many cultures and countries, including India and Morocco) signifies a transformation as its initial stain naturally darkens from orange to burgundy to a rich brown.

During the three-hour beginner’s class, Gruenberg demonstrated a basic Henna paste recipe made from high-quality Henna powder she ordered online. She said there are hundreds of possible concoctions, but using a recipe she called KISS (Keep It Simple, Sister), she mixed the Henna powder with lemon juice, a dab of lavender essential oil, and sugar, which helps the paste bond to the skin as the dye takes hold.

The class took turns stirring and sniffing the small bowl of thick greenish paste, which, under the lavender, smelled like fresh hay with a whiff of sweetened green tea.

Gruenberg explained that to make a proper stain, Henna paste must sit for up to 48 hours, for its pigment to “release.” Fortunately, she had a massive batch ready and waiting for her students.

Practice makes perfect

Using small cones made out of a clear plastic material called Floraphane wrap (available at craft stores), the class practiced squeezing the Henna paste in thin lines on paper and two obliging life-sized plaster casts.

Students flipped through Gruenberg’s books and albums of multicultural designs, topped off their mugs, and then rolled up their sleeves – or, in many cases, the legs of their jeans.

West Chester resident Judy Van Naerssen, an oil and pastel artist who is leaving soon for a two-month trip to China to work at a school for blind children, perused a deck of cards with Chinese characters. She chose a symbol meaning “Joy,” with an explanation that true happiness is internal, and doesn’t rely on goals or outside events.

“It spoke to me today,” she said, decorating her ankle and then her palm.

Some women paired up, including a mother-daughter duo, while others worked alone.

Susan Dinkins applied an elaborate bracelet halfway up her left forearm. “I’m really enjoying this,” she said.Gruenberg decorated Hicks’s pregnant belly with a lotus flower design, while Hicks clamped a hand across her mouth, fighting giggles over her fellow participants’ quips.

After the Henna paste had dried on her students’ skin, Gruenberg helped them to cover their decorated limbs in paper or tape to protect the paste while the natural dye worked overnight. A Henna tattoo can last for a few days or a few weeks, depending on the quality of the paste, the pH of the skin, and how often the wearer washes or swims.

For Gruenberg, Henna is more than body art. “Henna is more than just a design upon the skin. [It’s] a way of connecting with another person.”

Gruenberg enjoys its distinctive earthy perfume, its cooling sensation on the skin, and the creativity, transformation and trust that practitioners enjoy as the ornate designs are applied.

“What I like about Henna is the whole expansive world it offers,” she added, from its history to its spiritual qualities. Teaching Henna is the perfect expression of her various passions: “art, touch [and] healing, learning and connecting.”

After the success of her first two Henna workshops, Gruenberg said she looks forward to offering more this spring.

For information on upcoming sessions, contact Gruenberg at ginagruenberg@aol.com.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.