Betsy Cooper decorates an egg in a Ukrainian egg decorating class at Soldotna Middle School during a class with Soldotna Community Schools earlier this spring. The technique uses layered dyes to build up intricate patterns.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Marlys Mosbrucker cared for her egg with an attention to detail that would put a mother hen to shame and send the Easter bunny to the unemployment office.
"When I planned this trip to Alaska, I never imagined I would be doing this," she said, as she coddled her creation.
Mosbrucker had just spent hours in the time-honored tradition of pysanky.
Also called Ukrainian Easter egg making, pysanky is a process of transforming fragile white egg shells into artistic masterpieces by decorating them with brilliant colors and ornamental designs.
The Soldotna Community Schools program recently offered a course on pysanky at Soldotna Middle School. Mosbrucker was among the participants.
The hallowed custom of pysanky didn't begin in Kenai, Soldotna or even Alaska, though. It began in Europe more than 2,000 years ago, before the time of Christ.
The people were closely tied to the natural world, and as such, had many myths and magical rites that revolved around their strong ties to nature. Eggs were seen as a source of life. Also, following the often-harsh winters, they were seen as a symbol of new hope and prosperity related to the coming of spring. The people had worked hard to survive, and the decorated eggs represented not just the changing of the seasons, but also life winning over death.
Instructor Sandra Lewis helps Marlys Mosbrucker decorate an egg during the class.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
With the advent of Christianity and subsequently the Easter holiday, different interpretations have been layered on the decorated eggs over the years. But, despite the differences in the symbolic meaning between now and then, the ancient tradition of how pysanky is done barely has changed since its inception.
"It's very similar to batik," said Sandra Lewis, the Soldotna Community Schools instructor for the class. Although not Ukrainian herself, Lewis is an art teacher at Skyview High School and has been doing pysanky for just under a decade.
"We do pysanky once a semester in preparation for batik. It gives (students) the concept for what they'll do on cloth, but the eggs are cheaper to practice on," she said.
Batik is a process of blocking out selected areas on a cloth by brushing hot wax over them and then dyeing the cloth. The parts covered in wax resist the dye and remain the original color.
This process is then repeated to create increasingly elaborate and colorful designs. After the final dyeing, the wax is removed and the cloth is ready for wearing or showing.
Pysanky is in many ways a variation of the same theme.
Betsy Cooper, Marlys Mosbrucker and Sandra Bartlett laugh as they ponder the selection of colored dyes they could choose to apply to their Ukrainian eggs.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
First, the egg yolk is removed with a tool called a one-hole blower, or by making two holes one in the top, the other in the bottom with a small nail and blowing the yolk out by mouth. Then patterns are lightly sketched with a pencil onto the shell.
With a delicate hand, these patterns are then traced on the egg using a small tool called a kistka. This tool, which traditionally consisted of a bone attached to a stick, is in modern times nothing more than a hallow brass cone with a hole in the end of it that is fastened to a small stick or dowel. Electric kistkas also are available through crafts stores and art supply catalogs.
Beeswax is packed into the kistka and heated over the flame of a candle or lantern until it dribbles smoothly out of the funnel-shaped piece of brass onto the egg shell, where the pencil lines are traced over in the wax.
This can be more difficult than it sounds, according to Lewis.
"If you don't heat the kistka enough, the wax won't come out evenly, but if you overheat it you get a big blob. You've just got to be patient and do a little at a time," she said.
The wax protects the covered areas from the dye that is applied by submerging the egg for extended periods of time in a dye bath. By repeating this process with different colors of dye, a complex, multicolored pattern is built up.
Finally, the wax is removed by holding the egg to the side of a candle flame for a few seconds until the wax starts to melt and can be wiped away with a tissue or cloth.
This reveals the colors that were covered up at each stage, but to make the egg long lasting, they also are varnished to protect their luster.
This style of decorating the egg in wax is how pysanky got its name. It comes from the Ukrainian word "pysaty," which means "to write." When only decorating one egg the process is called pysanka, but when decorating multiple eggs it is called pysanky.
"All the colors used mean something different," Lewis said, referring to the symbolism of the dyed eggs.
A student heats a tiny vial of bee's wax that she will apply to an egg. The wax prevents dye from reaching the egg, allowing artists to create intricate designs.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Each region of the Ukraine uses characteristic color combinations in its designs. The most ancient pysanky were said to be composed of only one or two colors. The most magical ancient pysanky were considered to be those having four or five colors, each carrying a message of good will for the recipient.
As to the colors themselves, white is the symbol of purity, virginity, innocence and birth. Yellow is the symbol of light and purity. It speaks of youth, happiness, the harvest, hospitality, love and benevolence.
Orange is the symbol of the golden, everlasting sun and it represents the red of passion tempered by the yellow of wisdom. Red is a magical color of folklore and signifies action, fire, charity and spiritual awakening. It also glorifies the sun and the joy of life and love.
Green symbolizes spring renewal and speaks to the breaking of winter's shackles. It is also the color of fertility, freshness, health and hopefulness. Blue is used sparingly, but signifies the blue skies or the life-giving air and also symbolizes good health. Purple speaks of fasting, faith, patience and trust.
Brown is symbolic of Mother Earth bringing forth her bountiful gifts. Black is said to represent the absolute, the constant or the eternal, but black also may denote death, fear and ignorance. Black in opposition to red is said to signify ignorance arising from passions, while in opposition to white it is believed by some to denote ignorance of mind or to signify respect for the souls of the departed.
"As with the different colors, each of the symbols used had a different meaning, too," Lewis said.
The symbolic ornamentation of pysanky typically consisted of geometric motifs. The most ancient and widely used symbol is the sun, which is stylized in unlimited and sometimes abstract designs such as a circle, flower, spiral, broken cross, triangle, eight-point rosette or a star. Then sun represents the source of light and life.
Second only to the sun is the symbol of the star. Stars symbolizes success and are represented with even numbers of points typically six or eight because even numbers were believed to foretell good fortune.
"Animal and plant motifs were also used," Lewis said.
Betsy Cooper thumbs through a magazine article detailing Ukrainian egg designs. Decorated eggs are popular at Easter, but they can be utilized during other holidays as well.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Birds are delicate symbols of spring and good harvests. Deer, horses and-or rams symbolize wealth and prosperity. Fish are symbols of people finding their way out of confusion. Snakes symbolize protection from catastrophe. Bees are symbols of hard work and pleasantness. Spiders represent good luck.
Fruit and vegetable symbols mean a good harvest and a good life. Common symbols are peas, cherries and apples.
Trees often represent people, with men being oaks, maples or beech and women being birch, poplar or bass wood. Trees also mean long life, good health, strength and youthfulness.
The eggs were, and still are, given as a gift for sacred, secular or special occasions.
"We do it for fun and for decoration at Easter time, but they do it for specific reasons, all year round, for many occasions," Lewis said.
Traditionally, pysanky were given for engagements and weddings. Eggs might be made and saved to be placed in the coffin of loved ones who might die during the coming year or pysanky might be placed on the graves of already deceased family members.
Two or three eggs might be placed in the trough where livestock ate, in the hope they would give birth to many offspring. In spring, shepherds would take eggs representing the grazing animals out to the fields with them. Pysanky also were placed beneath bee hives to ensure a good harvest of honey.
In modern times pysanky are made during the last week of Lent, Holy Week in the Catholic and Orthodox calendars both faiths that are represented in Ukraine. They are then taken to church on Easter Sunday to be blessed, after which they are given away.
Although the participants in the Soldotna Community Schools pysanky class weren't entirely sure who they would be giving their eggs to, they were sure they had a good time learning the craft.
"I think this would be a cool gift to give. Homemade gifts are the best kind of gifts. They say a lot," said Betsy Cooper of Soldotna. She enrolled in the pysanky class with her teen daughter, Heathyr.
"She'll be leaving home soon," Cooper said. "We wanted to do some fun things together while she's still here. We saw this class and thought it might be fun. It was. It was challenging, but fun."
Cooper said being able to experiment with different crafts and skills is one of the things she likes best about the community schools program.
"It gives you a taste of things to give you an idea if you want to do more with it," she said.
Mosbrucker said she also had a good time and learned a lot from the pysanky class.
"I liked it and would try it again. I think I would just start with simple designs and do a little each night, though, rather than completing a whole egg in one sitting," she said.
After thinking about it a little more, Mosbrucker came up with one more thing that would help her in any future pysanky endeavors.
"I think I might use a stencil, too."
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