When Jen brought forward the idea of decorating Ukrainian eggs this past weekend, I jumped at the opportunity.
I don’t know if it’s just me and my friends, it seems as though many people have had exposure to Ukrainian egg painting at some point in their lives. For me, it was in either grade two or three, when I was living in Sudbury the first time around. My mom and I made a set of three eggs on a mother-daughter craft date. The details of the actual painting aren’t too clear in my mind, but I do know the legacy of those eggs live on. Up until this past week, the eggs were sitting in the display cabinet in my parent’s dining room. Because you don’t empty the contents of the egg prior to painting (the membrane serves as insulation, otherwise the empty shell would become too hot and delicate when you burn off the wax with a candle) they have to be rotated every few weeks until everything dries up inside. Two of the eggs my mom and I painted a decade-and-a-half ago are still going through this drying process, and she has recently taken them out of the cabinet in hopes they’ll receive benefit from better air circulation on the kitchen window sill.
My egg painting outing this time around was with Jen, and our other friend and colleague, Martha. It was at the Ukrainian Seniors’ Centre in Sudbury. We entered the room where, over the next two hours, a set of medium eggs would be transformed into an intricate display of layered dyes.
Most of the people attending the workshop were presumably mothers on a Saturday morning outing with their kids. Jen, Martha, and I look as though we could be anywhere between the ages of 16 and 30, so the two older ladies running the workshop earmarked us as high school students, an assumption likely confirmed as we rebelliously displayed our “free-spirited” egg design techniques over the next two hours.
The purpose of the workshop was to create the traditional “pysanka” style of Ukrainian eggs. Traditionally, the labrynth-like design was used to trap evil spirits as they penetrated a household. The design relies on the use of symmetry and quadrants and involves the use of a “kystka,” a copper funnel tool you heat in order to melt beeswax, which is then drawn onto the surface of the egg. Using the kystka is a lot of fun, and I love watching the funnelled edge gobble up the freshly melted wax.
The steps of creating a pysanka were extensively detailed in an instruction book the three of us got when we started the workshop. As you can see from the final photos at the bottom of this post, I think our eggs all captured the gist of the traditional style. They do, however, have their own signature – something that makes each distinguishable from the next. This creativity, we discovered, was not in the spirit of what the ladies running the workshop wanted. They were very sweet and well-intentioned, however they did not want us to express any of our personality on the eggs. I understand – traditional Ukrainian motifs should be respected – but we were not treading so far off the path as to dishonour that tradition. We were simply adding wheat where there should have been pussy willows, and additional green dye where there should have been black. Because much of the religious significance is lost on my agnostic-self, I didn’t feel the need to conform with the Christian symbolism. This led to a bit of backseat egg decorating. I’ll leave it at that.
In the end, I think the two ladies running the workshop were relieved to see our eggs still resembled the traditional pysanka, and that we had some level of competence that was formally doubted. Of course, the workshop facilitators are very talented and experienced egg designers themselves, and created such beauties as these beaded designs:
The workshop was tonnes of fun and I learned a lot – not only about how to design more Ukrainian eggs in the future, but also about Ukrainian culture and tradition.
In terms of how to create the actual pysanka design, here’s how that worked: The egg is separated into different sections – split vertically à la Greenwich Meridian and horizontally à la equator. That centre point is then intersected diagonally across the egg to create a series of eight triangles in each quadrant on either side of the egg.
From there, an eight-pointed star is added on each side to represent the sun god (or Christ, following the advent of Christianity in Ukraine), and other flourishes are added as well. Dye-wise, you dip from lightest colour (yellow) to the darkest (black). The areas you cover in beeswax with the kystka will be immune to the next shade of dye, thereby allowing you to dip the egg in its entirety, while only colouring it in parts. At the end, you burn off the wax using the side of a candle flame, and gingerly wipe the glossy melted bits for the grand reveal. It’s all very exciting, and after two hours of covering the egg in wax and dye, it’s rewarding the see your handiwork transform into a beautiful pysanka.