I’m not known for precision or patience, so when my editor suggested that we take a class in pysanky — the ancient Eastern European tradition of dyeing Easter eggs with intricate folk designs using a wax resist method — I thought it sounded like a migraine-inducer.
But I’ll try anything once.
Off we went to the Strawberry Hill Museum and Cultural Center in Kansas City, Kan., one Sunday afternoon with our friend and former colleague, Alice Thorson.
Instructor Irene Thompson greets us. Her mother, Frieda Kossyk, helps. She’s 88 and still makes a pysanka every day. (The women say farm-fresh eggs accept dye the best; they’ve also worked with duck and ostrich eggs.)
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“My father was Ukranian so I wanted to teach this cultural art in his honor,” Thompson says.
She likes to limit her two spring pysanky classes to about a dozen participants each so she can give individualized attention. The two classes this year sold out quickly, and Ed Grisnik, who coordinates cultural exhibits and classes at Strawberry Hill Museum, had to start a wait list. To meet demand, he and Thompson might schedule classes in November to make Christmas eggs.
Thompson begins the class by showing a short film that explains the tradition and significance of the symbols dyed onto the eggs.
The word pysanky comes from pysaty, which means “to write,” because the designs are written with lines of beeswax on the eggshell using a stylus called a kistka.
In the film, a Ukranian woman begins an egg by quickly bisecting the shell with a series of wax lines. These served as guides for the rest of her design. She is fast and precise, holding the pointy metal tip of the tool in the candle flame, dipping it into the wax then drawing straight lines onto the shell by rotating the egg and holding the kistka still. Within seconds, a perfect star within a star appears. She embellishes it with other symbols … leaves, dots, curls.
No one knows exactly how old the Pysanky tradition is because the old decorated eggs didn’t survive. But it dates to pre-Christian times when it was considered a pagan ritual. The egg held powerful meaning, as the yolk was the nucleus of life while the symbols on the shell protected against evil and served as lucky charms.
Each symbol had pagan meanings, some of which changed with the advent of Christianity. The triangle first symbolized air, fire and water, then the Holy Trinity. Dots originally represented stars, then the tears of the Virgin Mary. Lines around the egg represent eternity, curls represent serpents and symbolize protection. Birds symbolize spring, and sprigs of grain represent the growing church.
As the film continues, the woman begins dyeing the egg by dipping it in yellow dye, then adding more to the design with the kistka and wax. Then she dips the egg in orange dye. Then more drawing with the kistka and wax, a dip in red dye, and still more designs before finally bathing the shell in black dye.
After the black has dried, she holds the egg over the candle flame to melt the wax off and a beautiful, colorful, intricate pattern is revealed.
When the film ends, we turn toward our table and tools and our blank egg.
Thompson notes that you should always start with a room-temperature egg so there’s no condensation. And when we’re finished with our eggs, she says, don’t display them in sunlight (causes fading) or a china cabinet (it prevents air from circulating around the egg). We can leave the yolk inside, though sometimes, humidity might cause the egg to explode.
“I have one that’s 20 years old and the yolk is now hard and rattles,” Thompson says.
She has given us each four pages of instructions for designing our eggs.
The first rule: always draw by rotating the egg while it rests on the tabletop. Hold it in your hands, Thompson warns, and you’re sure to drop it.
We begin by drawing lines around the egg with a pencil, dividing the eggshell into eight equal parts.
Two more lines are drawn, diagonally, all the way around the eggs so that each side has eight spokes radiating from a center. This is the framework for our design.
Next we draw dots in the middle of each of the 16 triangles on the egg. These are the tips for our two eight-point stars.
My lines are scraggly. I’m tempted to erase and start over.
Leave it, Thompson says. Eraser marks will mess up the dye process. Just redraw the line straighter and remember those are the lines the wax will go on. You won’t see the errant pencil marks once the egg is dyed.
Really? I’m skeptical.
“I think this is a very forgiving process,” Thorson says.
My star is a little lopsided in spots, but overall looks OK.
Now it’s time to apply the wax. We light our candles, hold the metal tip of the kitska in the flame then dip it in the small pot of beeswax, which turns black with the heat of the tool, and trace the tip over the pencil markings.
Turns out this is easy thanks to the pencil lines, though I have a tendency to retrace my lines with the wax several times. Thompson encourages us not to do this, but my wax lines look weak and shaky if I don’t.
After about an hour or so of drawing on the egg with the pencil and wax, I realize that I’m very relaxed. I’m enjoying it.
Dye and reveal
After drawing two concentric stars on each side of the egg, wheat grains and tear drops, I’m ready for the first layer of dye: hot pink.
This is where you have to start thinking hard about what you want your finished egg to look like, because you have to soak the eggs in the lightest dyes first.
Another participant, Beverly Hof-Miller of Kansas City, says pysanky’s wax resist method reminds her of batik, which she’s been practicing since the 1980s.
“But the dyes are different,” she says. “In batik, if you dunk the fabric in blue then yellow, you would get green. With this, the darker dye completely cancels the other one but you have to dye the lighter colors first.”
After five minutes, I remove my hot pink egg from the dye, dry it off with a paper towel and head back to my table.
I want the outer stars on either side of the egg to remain pink so I color them in with the kistka and wax. I also make 16 large dots, one outside each point, between the wheat stalks. They, too, will remain pink. Then it’s back to the dye table and a dunk in the orange dye.
A few minutes later, I pull the egg out, dry it off and head back to my tools. The entire egg is bright orange, with the exception of what’s been covered in wax. I want the innermost stars on either side to be orange so I cover them in wax, too.
I’m not sure what I want my dominant color to be, but decide on black because it will hide my errant pencil marks.
By this time, several other participants have finished dyeing their eggs and are wiping the wax off them with Ronsonol lighter fluid, which the teacher recommends because it removes the wax faster and safer than using a candle flame.
There’s a lot of ooohing and aaahing. Their eggs are gorgeous.
Thorson, with her artistic eye, has come up with an amazing color combination of orange, forest green and dark blue. I’m getting excited. My editor, Kathy Lu, has decided to use four dyes — orange, blue, pink and black.
Three hours after starting on my egg, I pull it from the black dye and dry it off. It’s solid black. Now it’s my turn to see what I’ve created.
Kossyk shows me how to cradle my egg in a lighter fluid-soaked cloth for a few seconds to loosen the wax. Then I gently rub the shell with the cloth and little by little, a bright pink, orange and white pattern emerges.
I can see pencil lines beneath the pink and orange dye. And the white lines are a tad crooked. A pysanky master could probably find a thousand mistakes on my egg. But I don’t care. It’s pretty. And I made it.
As for the yolk inside, I’m too afraid to punch holes in the shell to blow it out. Let’s hope it doesn’t explode.
For information on pysanky classes, call Ed Grisnik at 913-299-4795. The recent class cost $20 in advance, plus a $2 supply fee in class.