Creating Crowns of Courage

by Kate Branum • photography by Dave Burgess

The use of Henna is centuries old, discovered first by desert cultures throughout the Middle East, India, Africa and Egypt for religious purposes, wedding ceremonies and royalty. The root word for henna–Mehndi–means “awakening the inner light,” a simple reminder through elegant swirls that beauty is skin deep. Henna tattoos have since passed the test of time and regularly appear in today’s mainstream as bold, temporary statements; however, local artists Amanda Gilbert and Steven Stone are determined to take the age-old art form back to its inspirational roots.

Gilbert has been doing henna tattoos for the past eight years. She began practicing her skills at Beautiful You by Profile Salon, a local safe haven which offers complimentary services for women going through chemo/radiation, in 2016. Here, she would tattoo inspirational messages on her clients, all struggling with cancer, to serve as a reminder to stay strong.

“I started doing henna because it was really healing for me,” Gilbert explained. “I wanted to bring that same healing to other women; the healing aspect of henna is so powerful, even the organic, lavender-infused smell of it.”

One day in the spring, Gilbert recalls greeting a couple of women at the salon who had finally reached the stage most women dread in their treatment journey–they had arrived to shave their heads. The process was very emotional and Gilbert sought a way to relieve some of the women’s anxiety; she suggested doing a henna crown on the top of their heads. Her idea received an abundance of support and positive responses, and she began tattooing heads regularly. Gilbert dreamt of a way she could use her passion for henna art to bring courage to more women and awareness to the community.

“Before the women sat down and got their henna crowns, we asked them to be vulnerable with us and share their stories on camera.” — Henna Artist Amanda Gilbert

That fall, she was introduced to photographer Dave Burgess, owner of 616 Studio Photography, and pitched the idea of creating a photo series called Crowns of Courage. After working out the details, Burgess prompted her to reach out to his close friend Michelle Mucha, a breast cancer patient who was dealing with hair loss from chemo, to test-run the idea.

The experience is something Mucha will never forget. She received a personalized design displaying a bear on the back of her head—her spirit animal, and a symbol of her “mama bear” title given to her by her family. She had never felt more confident, beautiful and invincible as she did sporting her new crown; the tattoo served as a reminder of the tremendous strength she had inside of her and gave her the boost she needed to keep fighting.

Local artist Steven Stone and professional makeup artists Jessica Renusson and Tara Pennington were brought on board to form the Crown of Courage team. The success of Mucha’s photoshoot was all the reassurance Gilbert needed to further pursue her dream, and the outpouring of positive responses convinced the team to enter Crowns of Courage into ArtPrize 2017.

“We are making a statement about some of the superficial standards of beauty that women are judged by,” Burgess stated.

Over the next few months, Gilbert began to recruit willing subjects for the photo series at the salon and over social media. Hundreds of responses, inquiries and eager volunteers flooded Gilbert’s inbox, and she decided to take the logical next step—she launched a website.

The team chose a total of 22 women for the photo series. These women, along with their family and friends, were invited to Studio 616 to receive
their henna crowns and makeup. The overall process took roughly five hours per person as the artists transformed each woman into personalized,magnificent masterpieces.

“Before the women sat down and got their henna crowns, we asked them to be vulnerable with us and share their stories on camera,” Gilbert said. “We then had them go into another room where they couldn’t look at themselves until [the makeup and henna] were completely done.”

Gilbert’s goal was to tailor the crowns to fit each woman’s personality, interests and strengths; she and Stone made sure to include any symbols, words or images requested by each woman. They also added glamourous elements to the designs to make them unique, such as glitter or pops of color.

“We wanted the crowns to be as personal as possible,” Gilbert said. “We wanted the women to share what they were most passionate about or what they love—something that reminds them of being strong.”

Cancer is often a disease fought behind closed doors; many women find it difficult to express their struggle in public. Through this moving photo series, the women are transformed into courageous, elegant walking art pieces; the artists hope to show not only the public, but the brave women participating, that beauty is within.

“We wanted the crowns to be as personal as possible,” Gilbert said. “We wanted the women to share what they were most passionate about or what they love—something that reminds them of being strong.”

“Looking back at every person  I was able to meet and crown and the friendships that have grown from it, to see the strength and the weaknesses of every person really gave me a new perspective on life and even my own health,” Gilbert expressed.

Currently, Gilbert is working on turning this project into a full-fledged non profit organization geared toward helping women everywhere find free henna artists in their areas, professional makeup artists and photographers to collaborate with for
their own Crowns of Courage photo series.

Crowns of Courage will be on display at the DeVos Place Convention Center (303 Monroe Ave NW) in downtown Grand Rapids for the duration of ArtPrize. In addition, visit the Crowns of Courage website for more information at


Kate Branum

When she’s not writing or editing for WLM, you’ll find Kate out and about in downtown Grand Rapids, working on a craft project or scrolling through cat videos on social media.




Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.