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Body of Work

Handmade Tales: Rebecca Freedner


Published May 27, 2008 at 8:05 p.m.

Henna design requires an unusually steady hand, and Rebecca Freedner of Heartfire Henna has one. She reveals this at a recent session of decorating three teenage girls from the Lake Champlain Waldorf School — Liana Nuse, Kira Voss and Jana Nakhleh — for their performance in an upcoming concert. Holding her homemade cone-shaped applicator like a pen, Freedner traces threadlike scrolls of the orange-brown paste onto the back of 15-year-old Nuse’s hand. Then, without lifting the fine-pointed nib, she reverses direction and precisely retraces each swirl of the intricate design.

By the end of 15 minutes, an eye-catching pattern has emerged: Out of a central flower motif, a meandering leaf climbs Nuse’s ring finger; each knuckle is adorned with a series of dots leading to a starburst. Freedner finishes by applying a sealing spray — a secret recipe that keeps the henna paste from drying out, she explains — and offering Nuse her choice from a range of colored sparkles. “The sparkles just make you so much more aware of not smearing it,” Freedner explains to the girls.

Nuse stretches out her blue-sparkled hand to view the finished work of art. “She really knows what she’s doing,” the Shelburne ninth-grader concludes approvingly.

Freedner, 32, lives in Vergennes, but transports her adorning services to parties of any kind — kids’ birthdays, bridal showers, pregnancy celebrations (she does bellies, too!), bar and bat mitzvahs. She has worked as a henna artist for the past two and a half years. But her interest in the ancient art was piqued long ago, when she stumbled on a henna artist at a festival and “had an instant realization: I can do this. I can learn this,” she recalls.

Unable to travel abroad to learn the trade, Freedner scoured the World Wide Web for tips instead. She collected designs to show customers in a flipbook: the linear, geometric styles of North Africa’s Muslim cultures — “Men tend to be drawn to that style,” Freedner says — and the flowing, scroll-heavy Indian patterns. She practiced them on her two children, her husband and herself. “I don’t have a mentor,” Freedner says, “and I think I’m the only henna artist in Vermont. I belong to an online discussion group — they’re the only henna artists I’ve ever known.”

Through repeated trial and error, Freedner honed her paste making to a 24-hour process. Using pure ground henna leaf from the Indian state of Rajasthan, purchased through a San Francisco distributor, she makes what her kids call her “witches’ brew” of henna powder, tea leaves, cloves, fenugreek (“for its mucilaginous properties”) and essential oils. This concoction is then fed into cones, which Freedner rolls by hand from sheets of silver florist’s paper. Getting the cone’s tiny opening just right took countless tries, especially after she discovered that scissors left minute serrations on the edge.

Experimentation is nothing new for Freedner. Born in upstate New York, she moved to Manhattan alone after ninth grade and pursued her interests — an apprenticeship with the National Organization of Women, photography lessons, sign-language classes — at an age when most young people are still sitting in homeroom. Later, she lived in New Mexico, in Cerillos next to turquoise mines and then in the massive Gila National Forest. There she worked as a nanny for a Native American family that housed her in a teepee. “I always feel like I’m telling someone else’s story when I talk about my past,” Freedner exclaims, adding, “I’m practically a soccer mom now.”

These days Freedner is “completely consumed,” as she puts it, by henna. The itinerant artist aims to open her own studio space for parties and showers, and she’s working with the Shelburne-based toy store Nova Naturals on developing a henna kit for kids. In the meantime, Freedner enjoys the conversational intimacy that happens when she puts that sure, steady hand to work on a stranger’s hand — or foot, palm or belly.

Click a photo above to see the location.

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