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The Art of Pysanky

This ancient Ukrainian folk tradition elevates the egg into a masterpiece.
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Easter eggs are something you make as a kid, or with your kids -- and though you'd never admit it to the kids, they're not something that you'd expect to see exhibited in a museum.

The streaky, pastel colors (if you're at all impatient, never as vibrant as imagined) look fine for the Easter table or a basket, but as soon as Sunday passes, it's time to discard them.

There is a type of Easter egg, however, that rivals the most intricate, handcrafted piece of art in any season -- pysanky, or Ukrainian Easter eggs.

Pysanky actually predate the Easter holiday; they were first crafted thousands of years ago by the Neolithic Trypillian people.

Inspired by the natural world, people drew symbols and geometric patterns on eggs as talismans; the word "pysanky" is derived from the Ukrainian verb


, which means "to write."

People believed pysanky to be good luck charms. They would keep them in a home to protect against fires, or even bury them in a field to ensure a bountiful harvest. They would also exchange them as a sign of well wishes.

The egg itself was a symbolic element, signifying the mystery of life. However, after the advent of Christianity in the Ukraine in 988, eggs and pysanky, like many other pagan rituals, were incorporated into the Easter celebration as a symbol of rebirth.

Pysanky designs, both pre- and post-Christianity, are rich in symbolism; the traditional figures, plants and animals depicted each represent a certain quality.

Throughout the Ukraine, which stretches from Poland to Russia, different colors -- each also with a symbolic significance -- were favored, resulting in pysanky identifiable by distinct regions.

As Lubow Wolynetz, curator of the pysanky exhibit at the

The Ukrainian Museum in New York City, explains, "The individual motifs that are combined to create ornamental designs are similar throughout Ukraine, but the great variety of designs stem ... from regional tastes and preferences. Each region has its preferred color combination ... and compositional style."

Pysanky from the Hutsul, a western mountainous region, for instance (see photos below), are notable for their careful, tiny crosshatch patterns all over the egg. Those from southwest Ukraine feature a large, white graphic design on a single color background -- royal blue, teal, fuchsia or vibrant green. Large swaths of deep burgundy, white and black identify pysanky from the northwest.

These regional distinctions have been upheld due to how the pysanky tradition was handed down. Women always made pysanky, "almost in secret, and with good thoughts in their heads," explains Marta Baczynsky, public relations director of the Ukrainian Museum. They would then teach the designs to their daughters, thus ensuring that the motifs' visual and symbolic legacy was preserved.

According to Wolynetz, the oldest pysanka is a 10th-century clay prototype, with wavy green and yellow lines around its circumference, that was found around Kiev (the capital of Ukraine). Exact dating of the art is difficult, due to the delicacy of the medium, but there are pysanky in Ukrainian museums that are from the 1860s. And as Wolynetz points out, "since the design on

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those eggs is already well developed, we can only assume that the tradition of decorating eggs was in existence for a very long time."

Further, folk traditions such as pysanky were adhered to fervently for generations because they offered a way to pass down cultural identity, Wolynetz adds.

Even though pysanky is considered a folk art, it easily holds its own in a museum setting. The current

exhibit at the Ukrainian Museum, running through July 1, is a stunning collection of more than 600 eggs from the permanent collection and from pysanky researcher and prolific artist Tania Osadca.

The eggs dangle from large display cases, colors so vibrant they seem lighted from within. The simpler patterns are reminiscent of cave drawings or tribal artifacts -- not surprising when you consider the ancient roots of this art.

Closer, quiet contemplation reveals that pysanky are simultaneously bold and delicate. Tiny horses, elk, spiders and sheaves of wheat appear among spirals, stars and circles. There are bees, acorns, impossibly small ladders and tridents, garlands of flowers and clusters of grapes.

The Painstaking Process

The process of creating pysanky utilizes a batik method, or wax-resistant dyeing. Beeswax is scooped into the back of a


-- a small metal stylus -- that has been heated over a candle flame. A small opening in the front of the kistka allows a fine line of melted wax to be applied over the desired color. The wax protects the color as the egg is then dipped into increasingly darker dyes (and covered with more wax each time, to preserve the shade).

At the end, the wax is gently heated, traditionally over the side of a candle flame, then wiped off to reveal the riot of colored patterns beneath. The finished egg is then varnished to help preserve the delicate masterpiece.

Handcrafting Pysanky

Pysanky kits, which include multiple dyes, beeswax and a kistka, are widely available. Although it may take years of practice to create some of the traditional designs, you can try your hand at some of the simpler ones or produce your own.

A simple, step-by-step tutorial is available

online, but keep in mind it can take two to three hours to produce a single pysanka.

The ritual of making pysanky is soothing, however, and almost Zenlike -- you must slow down, pay attention to intricate lines and wait as the egg sits in its progressive baths of dye. The delicate balance of having an eggshell as your canvas and a heated metal tool as your brush requires focus and calm; it's truly an art form that proffers a patience and tranquility so hard to find today.

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