By Ella Gummer
The day before Mother’s Day, Emily Bishop’s henna booth at Eugene’s Saturday Market boasts a small paper sign, advertising “MOM” hearts for only $5. Sunset colored fabrics drape her henna booth, protecting her from the strong afternoon sun. Each side of the booth sports translucent curtains, letting in just enough light for her to see the evolution of ornate brown designs upon clients’ skin.
She sits atop a plush crimson bench. It is L-shaped and an inviting little cave of shade for those seeking solace from the heat. She crafted the booth herself, complete with a foldable bench that makes it easier for her to transport to and from the market. To her left, binders full of designs-Chinese letters, lotus flowers, paisley and the like-sprawl out across a small wooden table.
A quiet blond teenager sits in a chair in front of Bishop. She cradles the girl’s wrist in her left hand and composes the design of a star the girl picked from the book. Bishop’s hair, long and tawny, brushes her knees as she effortlessly draws up the tattoo. Just between her eyebrows she wears a teal and gold bindi, because she thinks it looks pretty even though her three sons tease her about it. On the inside of her wrist is her own ornate paisley design, a deep maroon color. This original piece doesn’t fade after a week or so, it’s a permanent tattoo meant to look like henna.
Her face looks like it hasn’t sported a frown in years. Her eyes are kind and her slight smile seems as permanent as the tattoo.
When she graduated from high school in Grants Pass, Bishop moved to Eugene where her sister was living. Her sister took Bishop to the Saturday Market, where she fell in love with the scene. Soon after, she set up shop and has been there ever since. A lifelong artist of many mediums, she picked up henna as a side art to traditional oil painting, and it stuck when she realized it could be profitable. Her booth is in a prime location, shaded but accessible.
Bishop loves to learn and is no stranger to trial and error. Her first henna kit didn’t work, so she did her research and put substantial effort into teaching herself. “I couldn’t make the henna last with my kids,” she says, “so I basically got permanent henna.” After reaching out to others in the craft, she grew close with her supplier, who eventually became her mentor. Her talent burgeoned from that point on.
“My favorite part of Eugene is that it seems to promote creativity,” she says as she looks down at her hands and wipes her fingertips, stained a warm terracotta color, with a wet paper towel. She raises her gaze to smile at passing market-goers. The market has helped Bishop find inspiration from other artists-including the inspiration to make her own shoes, she says as she lifts up a leg to showcase her latest project. They are a pair of supple black and brown leather sandals. Her blue and green striped skirt is one of her creations as well. Along with henna, painting and carpentry, sewing is just another craft that she’s had fun challenging herself with. “For me, it’s not about mastering the craft,” she says, “but just about having fun and learning about it, learning how to make structures that are stable”
She points to a phrase on her business card that reads, “In the artist we trust.” She explains how instead of a client “just picking a picture out of a book and getting a replication,” it’s much more exciting for them to trust in her and allow her to do an original piece. “But a lot of people are too nervous to actually trust. They wanna know exactly what they’re getting”
Bishop recalls one woman who trusted her with her head, bald from months of chemotherapy. She gave Bishop a general idea of what she wanted, then trusted her to take the reins. A photo of the result, an intricate web enveloping her head, is pinned to the side of Bishop’s booth. She smiles at the photo and says, “Now if a cancer patient comes to me, I do heads for free.”
She finishes up the blond teen’s star design with a rapid ease. Her technique is fluid, her execution confident. The girl smiles at her new ink, the smile that Bishop thrives off of. One of her favorite parts of being a henna artist is her customers, because she interprets their desire for the tattoo as a sign that they’re people who appreciate art: “They are not basic consumers-they’re buying art instead of a product.”