Crowns of Courage: Healing through henna at ArtPrize

Crowns of Courage
"Crowns of Courage" by Amanda Gilbert, David Burgess and Steven Stone, on display at DeVos Place Convention Center for ArtPrize Nine.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In a crowded DeVos Place, Amy Blunt weaved through the swarms of people, stopping in front of a clay sculpture of a woman, lying on the hardwood of a weathered staircase.

“A sad person that’s lonely, needs some guidance,” Blunt said as she described the art. “(She) needs some direction, needs some help. (She’s) tired.”

As she stared intently at the fragile work, it reflected in her eyes. She could see herself in the clay.

“I think I’ve felt like that a few times. Just (to) lay down and give up for a little bit,” Blunt said.

In February, Blunt was throwing a Valentine’s Day party for her kindergarten class in Belding when she got the call. The tests were positive: She had breast cancer.

“I had a very funny feeling about it when the lump was still first discovered and when I went for the ultrasound. I had a gut feeling and the technician said the doctor will be right in. He told me without a biopsy, just because of how it looked,” Blunt said.

The bad news wasn’t over.

“It was a big game-changer. It went from a lumpectomy to a mastectomy. There was no indication, like I said, that it went into my lymph nodes, and it had,” she said.

Blunt had some low moments, times where she wouldn’t get out of bed, wouldn’t talk to her family, didn’t go to work. She wanted to be left alone.

One question also came up: Why me? Her mother suffered the excruciating disease for years, she would think. Hadn’t her family dealt with this enough?

“(It’s) still very emotional. It’s just unreal. (I was) scared. I had to be there for my kids,” Blunt said as tears welled up in her eyes. “(I was) just in denial and I think I still might be a little bit. (They are) words you don’t want to hear,  and I heard them. It was tough.”

What was even tougher is the journey she had ahead of her. After surgeries to remove the cancerous lumps, Blunt would need eight rounds of chemotherapy and then radiation.

As the fear and pain of treatment settled into her body, Blunt was faced with the cruel reality of fighting the disease. Her hair began to fall out, from her head, to her eyebrows, to eyelashes.

“(It was) very, very traumatic,” Blunt recalls. “It took me a couple of days to look in the mirror.”

But it was the loss of her hair that has helped her regain the confidence that cancer stole. She stumbled upon a program called Crowns of Courage.

“I went to my doctor’s office who had a nurse who was part of this program. So I went home, looked it up online and my whole attitude just changed,” Blunt said as she talked to a crowd as DeVos Place. “I went from crying and upset to my stomach to, ‘I can do this.'”

Crowns of Courage is a program started by a young West Michigan artist that uses henna tattoos as a way to help women battling cancer heal.

Amanda Gilbert from Comstock Park started doing henna art for personal reasons.

“I started doing henna myself because it was very healing for me. Dealing with anxiety, I was always able to take it out whenever I wanted, even amongst a group of people,” Gilbert said. “I could create this own little world around me.”

That little world spread like wildfire. At a salon in Comstock Park, Gilbert saw a young woman having a hard time coping with her hair loss. She saw her gift of henna art as a way to give her back that feminine beauty.

“It’s a reminder for them to be like, ‘Oh yeah, she told me to speak love over myself instead of hate. She told me that whatever I think I can create,” Gilbert said.

So far, Crowns of Courage has crowned 22 women with unique, intricate tattoos that define their beauty. Gilbert’s goal to empower these women grew into an ArtPrize entry with the hopes of turning this gift of art into a nonprofit that can help women all over the world.

The lavender-infused henna is tattooed on the heads, arms and shoulders of these women. It takes hours to finish. But when it is done, photographer Dave Burgess snaps the raw emotion and confidence that shines through in each smile.

The portraits are hanging now at DeVos Place. These women and their battle now on public display. Some in the large crowds at the convention center stop to stare. Some stop to hear the message. For others, it is too much; tears turn them away.

Blunt is moved by the portraits. For the first time in public, with the 22 women on print behind her, she, like many of them, reveal her bald head for the first time in public.

“It feels good,” Blunt said, scarf in hand and smile glimmering through her eyes. “(It’s) relieving; (the) pressure (is) gone.”

Friday evening, Blunt will be crowned live at DeVos Place. It’s happening at 5:30 p.m. and takes about two hours.

“It represents a lot. Cancer is definitely a fight,” Blunt said.”It’s inspirational. It’s not just a crown… there’s so much more behind it. (It gives) so much more meaning, to fight. The beauty of it helps. It’s very emotional, all at the same time.”

Blunt has built relationships with many of the women whose photos hang from the walls at DeVos Place. They have empowered her, given her the strength to make it through the hard days.

There are still hard days, days where she’ll lay in bed and sleep all day. But those are fewer as her days of confidence grow.

Art is interpreted by everyone differently. It depends on the journey it takes to get to the art. For Blunt, the clay statue she came upon is more than the sad, lonely woman who needs help. She sees a strong, confident and courageous woman.

The “Crowns of Courage” ArtPrize Nine entry is located on the second floor of the DeVos Place Convention Center, near the Grand River windows.

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