Student Spotlight: Kelly Kaur


Meet the 2nd-year New Media student inking out a career in design, by bridging the gap between traditional art and new technology. She’s also raising twins. How does she do it all?

How did you first become involved in the art of henna designing?

It was by accident. I was helping a friend at a festival [and] people just started walking up to me. After that, I developed an interest in it; I thought it was a fun thing to do. I started doodling and practising on my children. I did some research on it and found a local professional henna artist who was ready to mentor me. So I undertook a henna design course with her and I just took it from there. This was in Vancouver in 2012. I finally turned pro around at the beginning of 2014.

What else were you doing at that point in your career?

I was taking care of my twins. They were about 6-years-old then. I had taken a break from my accounting and legal analyst career to focus on raising them. Once I did the course, I started reaching out to make-up artists and I started receiving a lot of calls. I started doing a lot of free work with those artists, then the models started referring me to family and friends. I never advertised; all the business came from word of mouth. I was a stay-at-home mom for eight years, and once the kids were grown up, I felt I needed to do something.

Tell us a bit about how henna is made.

It’s derived from the Lawsonia plant; native to warmer climates like Morocco and India (specifically the western state of Rajasthan) and Pakistan. Some kinds of henna have a lot of chemical additives. I get mine imported from Rajasthan and Pakistan, and I only use organic. Henna can be used for design purposes on hands or feet, or for dying your hair. The natural colour of henna can range from orange to cherry black, depending on a person’s body temperature.

How do you mix it?

I have my own method of mixing it. I primarily use the henna powder, lemon juice, water, amd a certain organic oil [containing] white tea tree oil and organic lavender oil, which is safer for pregnant women. I pre-mix my henna. Some people soak it overnight, but it depends on the climate and the temperature. I leave mine for 6 to 12 hours.

I believe in giving back. I feel henna is an art form and God-given talent, so I try to give back to the community

As a student of New Media Design/Web Development, do you see commonalities between graphic design and henna design?

Going into the program, I thought I would be graphically inclined, but I found myself falling back on my analytical side. Henna is a creative outlet for me, because I enjoy its symmetry. Sitting with my clients, I find myself researching them more, because I want to know what design will work more for them. The way I design the henna for my clients depends on what interests they have, what kind of wedding they will have, things they are comfortable with, and their budget.

What are the different kinds of henna designs you offer?

I primarily do bridal henna, but I also do a lot of fundraising, because I believe in giving back. I feel henna is an art form and God-given talent, so I try to give back to the community. I raise money by providing henna services. I work with the Ismaili community; I do fundraisers for cancer research, for Shopper’s Drugmart, and for school events.

For those who want to pursue a career in henna design, what sort of formal training is available?

There isn’t one as far as I know. In the long run, that’s something I would like to do, because I feel this is an art form that a lot of people are interested in doing for their family and friends. It’s a beautiful art form that sometimes gets lost. Unfortunately, the Indian mentality is to look down upon this, and I want to teach them that this is a form of art just like any other.

Traditionally, henna artists have always been men. What was your family’s reaction when you told them about your career plans?

At events, people consider you as “the help,” [but that] doesn’t bother me; I see it as an art. At weddings, I do get told by well-meaning uncles and aunts that this is an easy thing to do, so I tell them they are more than welcome to take my henna cone and duplicate what I am doing. Some people have taken me up on it. Then they give up, and they don’t apologize for it, but they do step away. I think now the talent has changed. Henna designing has emerged from its roadside-henna-artist style to a modern art form, and I hope people’s thinking about it also changes.

Henna designing has emerged from its roadside-henna-artist style to a modern art form, and I hope people’s thinking about it also changes.

A lot of your designs are unique; different from “traditional” designs. Is that a conscious decision?

Yes, because I like to mix contemporary style with traditional art. I prefer more fine henna than the thicker Arabic-style. I try to incorporate it [but] use my own style. Some clients have typical tastes and expectations, and that’s why I have consultations with them. Some people want it beyond their elbows, some people want a lot of intricate work. I try to explain to them why they should have a certain style, but I also respect their choice. You have to be mindful of not just the wedding, but also the ceremonies, and even the honeymoon. Certain designs tend to become patchy after awhile, and you don’t want that to happen to your client.

How long does the artwork take?

It typically depends on how intricate the design. Bolder lines don’t take too long, but finer ones can take up to 8 hours.

You have twin teenagers, a successful business, and you go to school full-time. What’s the secret?

A lot of tears, a lot of sleepless nights, and a lot of organization. It’s just me and my husband, and we end up putting a lot of things on hold to fit the girls’ activities. But we try to stick to a schedule. It is really hard, to be honest. I have heard a lot of criticism telling me to just stay at home, asking me why I am back in school. But I have two young daughters, and if I don’t show them what I can do, then what message am I teaching them? I am also someone who likes to learn new things, so I am doing this for myself. I want them to feel empowered and to feel independent.

How have you made connections and expanded your work outside the South Asian community?

It’s all about making friends in the industry, then they start sharing all the weddings they know of, and referring you to their clients. We all try to help one another within the wedding industry (make-up, music/events). There are a lot of female henna artists here and most are Indian. The Caucasian ones tend to cater to clients from their own culture, but I have been blessed to have clients who are Chinese, Japanese, Irish, Scottish and Eastern European.

A lot of tears, a lot of sleepless nights, and a lot of organization.

You have twin teenagers, a successful business, and you go to school full-time. What’s the secret?

A lot of tears, a lot of sleepless nights, and a lot of organization. It’s just me and my husband, and we end up putting a lot of things on hold to fit the girls’ activities. But we try to stick to a schedule. It is really hard, to be honest.

Do your kids show an interest in henna design?

Yes and no. I tell them they can use the skills to earn more money while still in school, but they are more technologically inclined.

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