The art of the Ukrainian egg or “pysanka” dates back to ancient times. Raw eggs are decorated with traditional Ukrainian folk designs using a wax-resist (batik) method. The word pysanka comes from the verb pysaty, “to write,” as the designs are not painted on, but written in beeswax with a tool called a kistka. The kistka is the pen, and the beeswax is the ink. Each successive color is waxed and dyed until the entire design is created on the surface of the egg. The wax is then removed, and a protective finish is applied. Pysanka is often taken to mean any type of decorated egg, but it specifically refers to an egg created by the written-wax batik method and utilizing traditional folk motifs and designs.
Ukrainian egg art captured Caroline’s creative imagination in 1974. It all started with a University of Minnesota college friend, Jane Shish, whose grandfather had emigrated from Russia. Her grandfather was a wood carver, who carved the ancient Ukrainian folk designs on wood. Jane was not a wood carver so she began creating the same traditional designs on Ukrainian eggs. Caroline became intrigued. She also became determined. “I was immediately drawn to the art,” she explained. “Jane volunteered to teach me the art, but before that happened, she and her husband were transferred to the East Coast – so if I wanted to learn, I was on my own.”
Caroline learned by research, reading books from the library, and lots of trial and error. She visited a Ukrainian gift shop located in Minneapolis, and she purchased her first Ukrainian egg art kit. “It was a struggle,” she laughed, “they weren’t turning out, and of course, I had to use farm-fresh, raw eggs. The process is intense and requires total concentration. It was a way for me to escape from daily routines and gave me an outlet to concentrate on this ancient art.”
And, for Caroline, it was more than that. It’s also an art form that is symbolic of Christianity. “I’m a preacher’s kid. I grew up embracing the symbolism of Christianity. Creating pysanky allows me to incorporate Christian symbols in an art form I enjoy,” Caroline explained, adding, “The design motifs on Ukrainian eggs date back to pre-Christian times. While the ancient symbols have remained through the ages, their interpretation has changed. When Christianity came to Ukraine, the meaning of the symbols used on the eggs changed. A triangle that once spoke of the three elements, earth, fire and air, now celebrates the Christian Holy Trinity. I was drawn to the symbolism that the art depicts. The cross which depicted the rising sun is now the symbol of the risen Christ.” Caroline further explained, “It’s also a tradition of Easter, to share the eggs with friends. As the eggs are exchanged one person says: ‘He is Risen,’ and the other person responds with, ‘He is Risen indeed.’”
As the art and its symbolism spurred what would become Caroline’s passions, the journey began. She found unwashed farm-fresh eggs, (to allow the shell to take on the color dye) and began creating. “It’s definitely easier now than it was 30 years ago,” she laughed. She finds brown eggs and green eggs, fresh, from neighbors and her sister Laurel. With a steady hand, Caroline creates egg after egg using the process of drawing Ukrainian folk designs (using beeswax) onto egg shells, and continuing with the dye process, which is quite time consuming and is completed in several repeated steps. Caroline has done thousands of eggs. She’s demonstrated the art to others, held classes, made gifts, given them away and sold them at art fairs. She now likes to create her own designs, including sunflowers, angels and replicating (fabric) quilt designs.
The Ukrainian egg art done by Caroline is just one of her many talents. Recently retired, she holds a master’s degree in family life education and child development. She moved to Alexandria in 1979 with her late husband Larry, who passed away in 2007. While raising their two daughters, Amanda and Alyssa, Caroline worked as a substitute teacher and tutored until a steady teaching position opened at Discovery Middle School. She has made educational toys for children, created puppets and puppet shows, directed musicals and plays for the Alexandria schools, worked with costuming, and acted and directed in community theater at Alexandria Area Arts Association. She’s sold her children’s toys and Ukrainian eggs at art fairs, and she sings in vocal groups at First Lutheran. The list of talents just goes on and on.
“Everyone finds their own art, their way to express themselves and express their creativity,” she smiled. She was taught not to give up if finding the confidence to pursue a creative talent needs a little persuasion. ”I remember when I was a high school sophomore and chosen to play Pomp and Circumstance for baccalaureate. I said ok and then went home, burst into tears, and told my mom that I didn’t think I could learn it. My mom, Marie Drevlow, (who didn’t play the piano) said, ‘You can tell them you can’t do it or you just practice until you get it. You just have to learn one measure at a time.’ I learned it,” smiled Caroline. She added, “I have carried that lesson with me throughout my life, learning new things…one step at a time. I can apply that to art, to memorizing lines, to school, to learning, in any and all ways. One small step at a time.” It’s a great life lesson. Caroline’s mother, Marie, passed away in 2009. Her father passed away suddenly in 1977.
Caroline shared another “teaching moment,” which clearly shows her exceptional quality of putting life lessons into learning situations. “I was demonstrating Ukrainian egg art in school. When a hockey player asked me how long it takes me to make one egg I replied that typically it takes six to eight hours for one egg. He said that seemed like a waste of time. I asked him how many hours a day he practices hockey? It’s the same thing, only a different art, a different outlet and a different outcome. Everyone finds their own passion. I think he understood what I meant.”
Yes, the process may be time consuming, yet, it is rewarding. Do, and repeat. Yes, a few eggs have gotten broken after the work is done. Caroline has tried to put the pieces of broken heirlooms (her own) back together when they’ve been accidently broken. “It’s devastating, after working so many hours on an egg to see it crushed in your hand,” she smiled. Both of her daughters have learned to create Ukrainian eggs.
Ukrainian eggs, the art and the ancient symbolism, the lessons in life that can be applied. Petefish continues her art and her bucket list of more ways to express life at its finest.
A bit of history – Ukrainians have been decorating eggs, creating these miniature jewels, for countless generations. In modern times, the art of the pysanka was carried abroad by Ukrainian emigrants to North and South America, where the custom took hold, and it was concurrently banished in Ukraine by the Soviet regime (as a religious practice), where it was nearly forgotten. Museum collections were destroyed both by war and by Soviet cadres. Since Ukrainian Independence in 1991, there has been a rebirth of the art in its homeland.
With the advent of Christianity, the symbolism of the egg was changed to represent, not nature’s rebirth, but the rebirth of man. Christians embraced the egg symbol and likened it to the tomb from which Christ rose. With the acceptance of Christianity in 988, the decorated pysanka, in time, was adapted to play an important role in Ukrainian rituals of the new religion. Many symbols of the old sun worship survived and were adapted to represent Easter and Christ’s resurrection.
For a brief summary of the colors and design elements of Ukrainian eggs, symbols used, and their meaning, go to graphicoriginals.com/history.html.