Leah Reddell, 47, from Denver, Colorado, creates intricate henna crowns for clients who have lost their hair following chemotherapy, helping them reclaim their bodies.
The body artist said her work allows clients to talk about the art on top of their heads, rather than having to respond to questions such as “are you sick?” or “why don’t you have any hair?”.
“The conversation starts with something about the art they’re wearing,” Reddell told The Huffington Post UK.
“Having art on your head is immediately empowering.”
Reddell first began face and body painting 14 years ago. Soon after, she began experimenting with henna.
The full-time body artist, who runs Face Fiesta, now splits her time between face and body painting at large events and creating henna art for individual clients.
She said that she first produced a henna crown for a cancer patient around eight years ago.
“I had seen them done by other henna artists and then I had a lady contact me about doing one for her sister,” she recalled.
“I loved the idea of being part of this lady’s healing ritual.
“I realised immediately how important it is to incorporate any patterns or symbols that are meaningful and important to the client.”
Some of Reddell’s clients have lost their hair to chemotherapy treatment following a cancer diagnosis, others have genetic hair loss conditions like alopecia.
The body artist said that the safety of her clients is paramount and, as such, she uses “100% natural henna paste”.
“Safety is always important, but it is particularly important when working with someone with a compromised immune system,” she explained.
“I make all of my own henna paste. It is 100% natural, fresh, organic henna powder (the powdered leaves of the henna plant) mixed with black tea, sugar, and essential oils.”
She added that when working with clients undergoing chemotherapy, she uses organic lavender oil in her henna paste as it is “the most gentle and calming essential oil”.
A spokesperson from The Royal Marsden Hospital, in London, told HuffPost UK that people undergoing treatment for cancer should always discuss the use of complimentary or alternative therapies with their clinical team.
And this is something Reddell agrees with. “It is always a good idea to check with your doctor first,” she said, before adding: “If anyone is seeking an artist to do a henna crown for them, they need to make sure that the artist makes their own henna paste and can tell them the exact ingredients — this is the only way to ensure that it is safe.
“There are many very toxic, chemical-based products out there being sold as ‘natural henna’, which is what people should avoid.”
Reddell said it takes her two hours in total to create a henna crown.
Explaining the process, she said: “The person leaves the paste on for several hours, ideally, and then the henna stain lasts on their head for anywhere from one to three weeks.”
So far, the responses to her work have been overwhelmingly positive and no one has reacted badly to the paste.
“Many of my clients come back to see me multiple times as they’re undergoing chemotherapy,” she explained. “I think henna crowns are a perfect option for someone who simply doesn’t like wearing a wig or a scarf.”
Reddell said many of her clients love that their henna crowns give them a different focus and conversation starter with other people.
“The henna gives them an element of confidence that is wonderful,” she explained.
“It really makes me feel like my art takes on this life of its own when a person wears it. It gives them a different and beautiful way of being in the world that isn’t just about being sick.”