Molly Arms saw a friend painting henna sixteen years ago, and on a whim, asked if she could try. “I had seen it a little bit, traveling in India when I was 18, but I hadn’t thought about painting until I saw my friend doing it,” explained Arms. “I asked her if I could try it. She let me try and I really just enjoyed myself.”
Already an artist who enjoyed painting and drawing, Arms hadn’t tried to show any of her artwork publicly. Henna allowed her to create in low-pressure situations, using a method that connected with others. Six years after first painting henna, she realized she could work festivals herself. Living in California at the time, she started working parties, festivals, weddings, and baby showers with another artist.
The draw to the art form was deeper than something fun for her to try. Arms wasn’t interested in permanent tattoos, and henna provided a way she could wear her art constantly. “In the beginning, it was because I wanted to do henna on myself,” Arms shared. “I didn’t think about a business.”
She also loved the culture henna stems from. Along with her travels to India, Arms knew the cultural expectations that comes with the art. “The way it is in those cultures,” She explained, “when you have henna for your wedding, you don’t have to do any chores while the henna is there. It’s also a really special event to get henna. They really pamper the bride. It’s not like that all the time.”
These days, Arms lives in Durango, Colo., sustaining herself working from May to October with her business, Henna Blessings, which uses 100% organic henna from Rajhastan. “In a different climate, I’d be able to do henna year-round,” she explained. “It makes enough money to live on during that season, which is great.”
Arms ended up in Durango after the birth of her son. She was living in the San Francisco Bay Area at age 24 when she got pregnant. Her mother had been living in Bayfield, a town next to Durango, for a year at that point. Her son’s father left when the baby was four months old, and eight months later, Arms decided she needed more help. From there, she moved several more times, including back to California when her son was eight and Mexico, before she returned back to Durango about eight years ago. “It’s very lovely there,” Arms said, who is currently in Rhode Island for a month. “It’s very community feeling. It’s small enough but big enough. The college really helps with the concert hall. It’s been good. I like it there.”
When she first moved to Colorado, she started looking for festivals, since there weren’t as many parties as she was used to. Festivals weren’t cheap, costing anywhere from $50 to $1,500 for a booth, and she started with fairs. She worked her way up to the point where she can now make anywhere from $500 to $2,500 in one weekend. She also found that people often look for a henna booth, making the marketing aspect of working a festival quite easy.
She also found henna a way to become a self-employed paid artist. “That’s what really attracted me after a while, being able to be self employed,” admitted Arms. “I’ve been self employed for awhile, but was always a nanny or a private cook. To be able to do something I love, and be an artist and make my own career is really wonderful. I think everyone should go for it when they have something they’re passionate about. You have to keep sending it out. Even if you keep getting rejected, you can’t take no for answer. You have to keep sending it to shows and galleries.”
She didn’t find henna to be as personal as her painting. “It’s more like doodling,” Arms said. “But with painting, it’s so subjective. A friend of mine is finally starting to sell work. She’s amazing. It’s taken awhile and she’s been entering into different shows. She’s finally having a couple of people buying her work consistently. She’s been really pushing me to do more with painting. The thing is, you never know if you don’t try. A lot of people don’t try because they think it won’t happen. That fear of rejection or failure. Do we really want to be in our sixties and seventies and think, why didn’t I try? You never know what your life will be like.”
There’s also the healing aspect of art that Arms finds comforting. “When I do henna or some other kind of art,” shared Arms, “like knitting or painting or whatever, and I can be having the worst day, but when I start making art, it goes away and it goes into the distance and I feel wonderful from it. It’s very therapeutic.”
Arms is attending Fort Lewis College, earning an art business degree and considering teaching overseas or offering art therapy. She’s been exploring different forms of art through classes that aren’t required for her degree, such as ceramics and printmaking. “When you start exploring the arts, you can find a lot of things you’re good at. A lot of people think they don’t know how to do art because they’re thinking of realism. I like to encourage people to pick up some form of art and not worry if someone else will like it. .. Even if you can’t make money from it, it’s still important. I like to make things and give them as gifts. If you think of all the artists out there in the world, who haven’t gotten their art out there, we’re all missing their contribution to society. They’re really important contributions to society.”
This is the third in a series of articles I’m writing, called “Sustaining Craft”, which focuses on people of craft and passion. Contact me if you think you have a good story or know someone with a good story.