Empire state of mind

Laura Lofgren

Owner and artist Catherine Cartwright-Jones had a mission when she opened the store Empire in downtown Kent. That mission was to raise awareness of spirituality to local students and community members alike.

“Empire is connections,” Cartwright-Jones tells me as she readies her henna paint. I’m sitting on a black, cushioned velveteen bench with my left hand outstretched across the owner’s knee. Her dull, plaid dress is soft underneath and she picks my fingers up to readjust for a better painting position.

She tells me Empire has two different meanings. One would say it’s a geographically extensive group of states under the rule of one person or one group of people. Cartwright-Jones would say it’s “a geographic connection of pathways.”

As she’s squirting the Lawsonia inermis tree dye onto my skin, swirls and dots take shape. Cartwright-Jones says she wanted to reach out to the world and show them that body modification isn’t a bad thing. Her blue-green eyes look up at me, and she says, “It’s important to be part of the community.”

Cartwright-Jones, who is nearly 60 years old, claims to have the largest henna Web site on the Internet, www.hennapage.com. Looking into the site, Cartwright-Jones began studying henna in 1990. She runs seven other henna-type Web sites. Also, she has lectured on henna and has been a consultant to the National Botanical Gardens in Washington, D.C., and the Royal Botanical Gardens in London.

She has worked with TV networks such as Discovery Channel, Fox and the BBC. And she once provided expert testimony on copyright law for henna artists in a U.S. federal court case. 

Cartwright-Jones attends Kent State and is enrolled in the geography Ph. D. program. Her Master’s essay, titled “Developing Guidelines on Henna: A Geographical Approach,” will allow readers to understand the nature of body modification in countries around the world.

After she’s done applying the cool ink to my skin, Cartwright-Jones tells me to “blow dry (my) hand and spray it with hairspray” to allow the dye to permeate the skin and maintain color. She then asks for the next girl to receive henna. No one answers as I get up from the U-shaped seat.

“How about palm readings?” Almost immediately, as I’m walking away, I hear two or three girls get up in excitement as one beats the rest to the seat.

Later, as Cartwright-Jones is telling me about the lotions and soaps in the store, we both notice the store is basically empty minus the few girls left for psychic readings. Cartwright-Jones wants to show me something.

Her henna-stained hand leads me over to a far wall of photographs. They are all pictures of women or young girls with some sort of modification on their bodies. Cartwright-Jones points out individual ones.

One girl, who looks to be from a southern Asian country, has large rings in her ears.

“Do you think she’s a poor girl or a rich girl?” Cartwright-Jones asks me. I stumble for an answer.

“She’s rich. You can’t work in a field with those rings on your ears!”

Another photo, which is from the 20s, is of a woman with tattoos on every part of her body except her hands and face.

Cartwright-Jones tells me tattoos were an escape for the woman. She worked on a farm and the circus came to town. The woman realized her only chance of getting out and seeing the world was to become the “Tattooed Lady” and join the circus. But, Cartwright-Jones says, she could still appear to be a young, distinct lady when she put on a dress since her tattoos would be hidden.

An African woman with symbolic scars on her face shows that she is a gateway for the gods. She is the one in her tribe who communicates with the netherworld. Cartwright-Jones says in America, we frown upon body mutilation, but in other countries, it’s something to take pride in.

“Ultimately, Empire is about discovering something new and connecting with it,” Cartwright-Jones says. “All the magic and body art you see today has been spread through empires.”

Contact features correspondent Laura Lofgren at [email protected].