Moria Gardener learns about the ancient art of pysanky, the ancient and intricate Ukrainian art of decorating eggs with wax and dye, and how this tradition continues today to celebrate Easter and the coming of Spring.
Sitting at our favorite country market and munching breakfast, we luck out because today there is a pysanky demonstration. As we watch the artist, Olga Lang, set up her colorful display, I take a trip down memory lane, savoring the time I shared this egg-decorating activity with a friend. It is more than a Ukrainian art form, and I’m about to find out how much more.
The word pysanky actually means to write, and the symbols decorating the eggs were used before there was an alphabet. They can even be found as far back as the third millennium BC.
Each egg, the artist explains, is a written message of love for someone special. While creating such a gift, the artist is to set aside negativity and attain a state of grace. It is a time of prayer and meditation, a time to impart love and blessings on the recipient. There is also the ingredient of gratitude. When you are grateful that you have someone in your life, you can give this gift. You can also give this gift in gratitude for life itself. All of this will be reflected in the design and, hopefully on completion, the artist will take these qualities into their life.
Eggs are a symbol of the mystery of life, and painting them is part of celebrating the return of spring, of life renewed. The artist begins by gently washing the egg with a soft cloth soaked in vinegar. This vinegar cloth will act as an eraser should a mistake be made when penciling her design.
I ask if Olga ever uses blown eggs — eggs which has their yolks and whites removed through a blowhole. She explains that it is a personal choice, and that blowing the egg stops it from exploding and is done at the end, after the design has been revealed and the wax removed. She chooses to keep her egg intact because it will submerge easily in the dye and not require sealing.
Today, the ancient design of forty triangles is chosen. Olga likes to begin with this design every year. With a practiced hand, she encircles the egg with her pencil, drawing lines that divide the egg in half. These lines are referred to as the lines of eternity because they are never ending.
As she works, the artist talks more about the symbols she uses. In addition to the lines of eternity, another pysanky symbol is a triangle with a dot in the center. This symbolizes the eye of God. There are many symbols. For instance, incorporating a rooster into the design is like saying, “may all your wishes come true”; a flower is for wisdom and beauty; and white space is for purity of the spirit.
It’s time for beeswax. Black, instead of the usual cream colored wax is being used for demonstration. The method is a wax-resist technique where wax is applied with a kistka to the parts of the work the artist does not wish to dye. The kistka is an ancient writing implement with a wooden handle and tiny copper funnel. The funnel is filled with the beeswax, which is melted over a candle flame, and runs out the minute hole onto the egg.
The copper wires of the kistka, if not kept clean, may cause accidental drops of wax to fall into the design. These accidents are called drops of sorrow or Mary’s tears. The concept here is that out of the sorrows of life come blessings, even though we may not see it at the time. If a person recognizes his or her grief and lets it go, a gift will come in the form of a blessing.
Next comes the transparent dye applied in color order from lightest to darkest. The first thing to wax will be anything kept white. On the forty triangle egg, all the lines of eternity are waxed then dipped in a mild vinegar solution to remove any perspiration or oil that may be on the egg from handling. This assures an even color when immersed in the aniline dye. If we want hard-boiled eggs for eating later, food coloring would be a better choice.
Sadly. I must be on my way and miss the completion of the dyes and final stages. When the coloring is done there will be a drying period before the fun of removing the wax begins, and perhaps an oil-based varnish will be be applied later.
In spite of my early departure I take several gifts with me. The gift of a moment shared, gratitude, and a peaceful experience: I’m grateful the artist Olga Lang has taken the time to come to our rural area and demonstrate her well-honed craft, and I’m grateful for the love she so obviously brings to her art – pysanky — the embodiment of love, peace, and grace.
Photo Credits (please note: the designs shown above are not Olga Lang’s design)