Pysanky: An ancient art form for modern times

Pysanky: An ancient art form for modern times

By Amy Eddings

Photo by Craig J. Orosz Anna Selfridge with an assortment of Ukrainian eggs she decorated. Most of the eggs are chicken, duck and goose.

Photo by Amy Eddings Ann Reddy holds a finished egg, covered in black beeswax, near a heat source to melt away the wax and reveal the dyed pattern underneath.

Courtesy photo Ann Reddy, left, and Luba Perchyshyn.

Photo by Craig J. Orosz Anna Selfridge holds a sgraffito style egg which is an art technique in which a surface layer of paint is scratched away to reveal a contrasting color underneath.

Dyeing and decorating eggs for Easter can be as simple as dipping a hard-boiled egg in a solution of hot water, vinegar and food dye, or it can be as complicated as the wax resist dyeing process used to make the extravagantly decorated eggs known as pysanky, or Ukrainian Easter eggs.

Only one method is rumored to save the world from evil.

“There’s an old Ukrainian legend that there’s a dragon of evil loose in the world, and it is tied down only by the chains which are made by the Ukrainian women who are making the Easter eggs,” said former pysanky maker Anna Selfridge. “Each egg is a link in the chain that holds the dragon down.”

Selfridge paused.

“So it’s plenty loose right now.”

To be blunt, the world needs more pysanky. The craft is ripe for a resurgence, given the renewed popularity in other homespun, time-intensive projects such as knitting, crocheting and canning.

Advocates of the art form say that, once the basic concepts and technique of the dyeing process are grasped, pysanky is easy. It’s also inexpensive. The tools and materials — beeswax, eggs, dye, kistka (the special pen or stylus used to write in beeswax on the egg) — are readily available. So are kits and books with step-by-step instructions.

Selfridge, curator for archives and manuscripts at the Allen County Museum in Lima, taught herself to make pysanky in the 1970s, but arthritis stopped her about 15 years ago.

“I just thought they were pretty,” she said. “I also knit and cross-stitch, so I had the patience for it. I don’t know that I do anymore, considering that it hurts.”

Selfridge isn’t Ukrainian, so pysanky isn’t a part of her family heritage. It’s not a family tradition for Ann Reddy, either, who said she’s of Irish descent. The artist and Tiffin Columbian High School librarian learned pysanky in 1985 from an art teacher who was Ukrainian.

“I just fell in love with it,” she said, pulling out from a closet in her art studio in Findlay a box covered in wax drippings and stained with dye. It was filled with her pysanky supplies, including decorated eggs in various stages of the dye process.

“It’s very much a flow activity, very much a slowing down” she said, setting up her tools for a demonstration. “Each step, you can’t take it any (faster) than it takes.”

You’ll need eggs, emptied of their innards. There are special tools that help you puncture a small hole in the pointy end of the egg and blow air into it to force out the yolk and egg white. You’ll need beeswax, dyes, large jars to hold the dye mixtures in, spoons to dip the eggs into the dye, a kistka, a candle to melt the beeswax off of the egg at the end of the dyeing process, varnish or shellac for sealing and protecting the finished product, an egg rack for drying the eggs, and clean cloths or paper towels to blot up spills and wipe away melted wax from the egg during the final step.

“This is a paper towel-intensive process,” quipped Reddy.

She picked up an empty, white egg shell in one hand and a soft lead pencil in the other. Starting at the top of the egg, she drew a faint line around the length of the egg. She drew another line around the egg’s middle. Dividing the egg into sections provides a symmetrical framework upon which to build a pattern.

Like quilts, there are many standardized designs that have developed over the centuries, such as the triangular pattern known as “Forty Days of Lent,” or the eight-pointed star, cross and branches pattern called “Paska.”

There are dozens of animal, plant and geometric motifs, each steeped in meaning. Stars represent success. Fruits and vegetables such as peas, cherries and apples encourage a good harvest and abundance. Ladders signify the ascent to heaven; hens and roosters, fertility. Books like “Ukrainian Easter Eggs and How We Make Them” and “Eggs Beautiful: How to Make Ukrainian Easter Eggs,” both by Anne Kmit, Loretta Luciow, Johanna Luciow and Luba Perchyshyn, provide examples and instructions.

Perchyshyn is Reddy’s hero, her mentor from afar. Perchyshyn’s store, Ukrainian Gift Shop in Minneapolis, is Reddy’s longtime source of pysanky supplies and inspiration.

“This past November, I was at a conference in Minneapolis, and I thought, I just gotta go,” Reddy said. She visited the shop, which has become more of a warehouse than a store.

“The son was there … and he said, ‘You know, we don’t have the kind of business that we used to have. It’s all just basically online,’” said Reddy.

She spotted a table covered with gorgeous Ukrainian Easter eggs.

“I asked him, did you make all these eggs, and he said, no, my mother did, she’s over there, there’s Luba.” Reddy giggled with delight, retelling the moment when she met THE Luba Perchyshyn. “I got my picture taken with Luba! She’s 92 years old!”

Her story told, she picked up her kistka. With smooth, long strokes, she covered the pencil lines with beeswax. The wax, stained black by the carbon from the flame used to heat the kistka, was easily visible on the white egg.

“Everything I’m drawing right now on the white egg will remain white once the wax is removed,” Reddy explained.

She unscrewed the lid of a glass jar of yellow dye and placed the egg inside. Once the egg has reached the hue she wants, she’ll remove the egg, let it dry, and then draw more patterns with the beeswax pen. Whatever she draws on the yellow egg will remain yellow in the final design. The process of drawing, dunking and drying continues, with darker and darker dyes: green, orange, red and finally black.

Reddy took a nearly finished egg out of her box. It was all black with waxy gray markings on it. Hidden under that gray wax were the brilliant colors of the preceding dye baths, colors that would be revealed once she held the egg’s surface near the flame of a candle and let the wax melt away.

“I prefer to put them in a low-temperature oven, with a pan underneath to catch the wax,” Reddy said. “If you hold the egg too close to the flame, you can crack it.”

Cracking the fragile shell is one of the hazards of the craft.

“If you have small children or animals, I wouldn’t recommend it,” warned Selfridge.

But if you can keep the kids at bay for a few hours, if you can lock the cat or dog in the basement, if you can set aside the desire for rapid results and let this ancient art form work its magic, there is much to recommend pysanky. Time, slowed down. Tradition, kept alive despite modern impulses favoring speed, disposability and uniformity. Keepsake-worthy eggs. And more links in the chains that keep our inner and outer fire-breathing dragons at bay.

Amy Eddings writes for The Lima News. She’s a former New Yorker and public radio host. When she’s not writing, she’s canning, cooking, quilting and gardening. Reach her at 567-242-0379, aedddings@civitasmedia.com or on Twitter @lima_eddings.

RESOURCES

Ann Reddy teaches how to make pysanky. Contact her for class availability and location at areddy2@me.com.

Ukrainian Gift Shop: This Minneapolis store, where Reddy has purchased her supplies for decades, bills itself as “the world’s largest source of pysanky and pysanky supplies.” Most of its business is conducted online at ukrainiangiftshop.com, but the store also offers a mail-order catalog. The website offers a guide for a “featured design.” It is located at 1008 N. Fifth St., Minneapolis, MN 55411. Its hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. CST Monday through Thursday. Call 612-788-2545 or toll-free, for orders only, at 866-PYSANKA.

Ukrainian Museum-Archives: This Cleveland institution offers pysanka classes and has an exhibit of pysanky from different regions of Ukraine. Upcoming classes are limited to five to 10 people. Contact the staff at staff@umacleveland.org for information. It is located at 1202 Kenilworth Ave., Cleveland. Its hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call 216-781-4329.

Surma, The Ukrainian Shop: This store is located in New York City, but you can buy goose egg ($75), chicken egg ($30) and wooden egg ($7.50) pysanky online at surmastore.com/pysanka.html. The store also offers a Ukrainian Easter Egg Decorating Kit and supplies for creating pysanky. It is located at 11 E. Seventh St., New York, NY 10003. Its hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, and it is closed Sunday. Call 212-477-0729.

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