Easter is on its way! The Christian holiday symbolizes many things to many people –the resurrection of Jesus, renewals and rebirth, and of course, the traditional Easter egg. While the idea of an Easter egg usually conjures images of hunts for brightly colored plastic eggs, confectionary delights or newly dyed hard boiled eggs, the artist or traditionalist in you may want to try something different –Pysanky.
The creation of Pysanky is one of the more intricate ways to forget the winter blues and look ahead, and foster your creative side. Originally a way to celebrate the rite of Spring by pagan tribes of Eastern Europe, Pysanky eggs began by way of the egg as a symbol of life and rebirth. There were many symbols put onto the eggs, such as baskets of seeds or nuts symbolizing plenty, horses representing power, and chickens standing in for the idea of fertility. Women would create enough of the eggs over the winter months to distribute throughout the year, when they would be placed on foundations of new houses, given to newly wedded couples, put in feed boxes for livestock or given to a potential suitor. They used plant and animal skins, along with berries and bark to create the dye and decorate them with symbols of good fortune and fertility, keeping them secret until spring celebrations. The arrival of Saints Cyril and Methodius in the 9th century CE and the subsequent Christianizing of the Slavic peoples added new symbols related to Christianity and Easter, such as the cross and roses, and old symbols took on a more Christian meaning. For example, bands around the egg can be made of triangles to represent the Holy Trinity and ribbons represent the ever-present God, with no beginning and no end. Now, however, many people just decorate their egg with whatever design catches their eye.
Fortunately for me, I happen to share a friendship with a woman who opens her home every year to a potluck “Pysanky party” where about fifteen of us, with a glass of wine in one hand and an egg in the other, gather around card, kitchen and dining room tables laden with candles, blocks of wax, pencils, picture books and little tools called “kistas”. Her countertop plays host to rows of every colored dye you can imagine, from Scarlet Red to black to Robin Egg Blue. These dyes aren’t from your PAAS kit -they are deep, beautiful colors that, note to self, do not need a lot of time to set and do not come out of clothing.
Admittedly, the idea can be a bit confusing at first, since the thought process is almost backward, forcing you to visualize your completed egg from the very beginning, but it makes perfect sense once you get the hang of it. First, the pencil sketch is made on the clean egg and anything that the creator wants to remain white is covered in wax with the kistka, which distributes, sort of evenly, the melted wax onto the egg. Once the white is “protected” by the wax, the egg is placed in the lightest dye one
desires on their egg–typically yellow. When the egg is dry, the next layer of wax is applied to all the areas the creator wishes to remain yellow. The same procedure is then repeated with orange or red, then purple, blue or black. Once all the desired colors are included and the egg is dry, the wax is removed by melting it off and, viola! Basically, you create a design from light to dark, protecting each layer as the darker dye covers over the lighter dye layer after layer. Yes, before you ask, the under layer colors can impact the final color, which can be a welcome or unwelcome surprise. My friend’s famous advice to all of her students, when this happens, or when someone accidentally drops a huge glob of wax in an area that wasn’t meant to have wax on it, is to “just go with it” –adjust your design to accommodate the “mistake”. That’s where the creativity part comes into play.
You may be snickering, but that’s actually really good advice for Pysanky, since really, there are no mistakes in art. Your creation is your creation, and that is the inherent beauty of the process.
Appreciating that beauty takes some time and practice. It took me a few years to become comfortable with the patience required to create something that I actually liked. Once you get into it, though, time stands still as you bend over your egg trying to trace the pencil lines with a tiny tool into a two dimensional design on a fragile three dimensional object while not dropping said three dimensional object that can explode on contact with any hard surface. It’s great fun, really.
Seriously, once you understand the logic, the process truly is fascinating. This year I watched another friend try the process for the first time and observed her misgivings about her own skill and her finished egg. She initially exhibited surprise at just how involved the process was, then doubt about her ability to create anything coherent on an egg, followed by frustration at her perceived mistakes, and finally the wonderment and respect for a personal creation and the intricate process involved. A Pysanky star was born.
Pysanky is truly made of trial and error and it can be the beginning of a really cool ethnic or Easter / Spring tradition. If you are interested in attending a workshop, check your local newspapers. Many libraries in the area host them, as well as several churches. One location here on the mountain is St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, which hosts a workshop for about 6 weeks every year beginning in early February. Thirty-five year veteran Pysanky creator, Ginny Hildebrand, is the teacher and can give you a great foundation to the process. Better yet, get a group of friends together, put out the tablecloths and candles, pick up some kistkas and a book on Pysanky, and throw your own potluck party.