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Pysanky: The Art of Ukranian Painted Eggs

By Anya Sebastian
From the 2010 Spring Issue of Edible Santa Fe

From earliest times, and in most countries, the egg has been regarded as far more than just food. It has been revered as a symbol of fertility, life, birth, renewal, good luck, springtime, resurrection and even eternity. Ancient Egyptians buried eggs in their tombs and it was common practice, in ancient Greece, to put eggs on top of the graves of loved ones. A well-known saying during the time of the Roman Empire was, ‘Omne vivo ex ovo’ (All life comes from an egg) and many myths from around the world share a common belief that the entire universe was hatched from an egg.

So, it’s perhaps not surprising that painted and decorated eggs have, for centuries, been given as gifts and used in springtime rituals. This is especially true in Eastern European countries, most notably the Ukraine, where the art of the decorated egg, or ‘pysanka’, is a highly prized national tradition.

The primitive people who once lived in that region were sun-worshippers.  The egg became an important part of their rituals and ceremonies, because, to them, the yolk represented the sun and the white, the moon.  In springtime rituals, it took on a special significance as a symbol of life itself. The apparently lifeless shell cracks open to reveal a living thing, just as the earth starts to bring forth new life in the springtime.


Traditionally decorated ‘pysanky’ (plural) are created using special dyes and beeswax, in a process similar to that used in batik. Wax is applied to all the surfaces not to be dyed, using a special stylus called a ‘kistka,’ and the egg is then dipped into the dye. This process is repeated as many times as necessary, until all the colors have been applied and the design is complete.  Depending on the complexity of the design and the number of colors involved, it can take from one to fifteen hours to decorate one egg.

The pagan symbols traditionally used in ‘pysanky’ were adapted, with the arrival of Christianity, to represent Easter and Christ’s resurrection. This adaptation caught the interest of Susan Topp Weber, the owner of Susan’s Christmas Shop in downtown Santa Fe. “I thought it would be a good idea to have more than just Christmas items,” she explains. “Easter things in general and Easter eggs in particular, seemed like an obvious choice.”

Weber has since become deeply involved in the ‘pysanky’ tradition and now offers a large and varied selection of decorated eggs of all kinds. She also stocks the traditional tools required to make your own ‘pysanka’—kistkas, dyes, beeswax—and every year, in the Spring, she hosts a free public demonstration, providing a rare opportunity to watch a naked white egg being gradually transformed into a colorful little work of art.

One of the ‘eggsperts’ (as Weber affectionately calls them) who spoke and demonstrated at this year’s workshop is Melissa Lewis. Although ‘pysanky’ is primarily a woman’s craft, traditionally passed down from mother to daughter, Lewis learned it from her Ukranian father. “He loved the country’s arts, crafts and food,” she says with a smile. “He taught all his kids to cook and decorate eggs! I started to learn when I was about four or five years old.”

Lewis, a schoolteacher, has taught children at Kearny Elementary the basics of egg decorating, Ukranian-style. “We used hard-boiled eggs to avoid any accidents and to make them easier to take home,” she says. ‘Pysanky’ are traditionally created using raw eggs, which are then ‘blown’ (the contents carefully removed) after decorating and drying. Not removing the contents carries a risk of explosive—and very smelly—consequences!

The classic designs and symbols still adhered to by purists have now been joined by a wide variety of other artistic representations. Weber has eggs from Poland, Austria and Russia as well as the Ukraine, depicting winter scenes, animals, birds and trees, as well as a mix of traditional and geometric patterns. Some are painted directly onto the surface and glazed; others have paper or fabric cutouts applied; a few are even wrapped in fine wire. “They can be chicken, duck, goose, swan or even ostrich eggs,” says Weber. “And they’re not just for Easter. People buy them for weddings, births, anniversaries, even funerals. They’re not something you buy as an investment. People either give them as gifts, or collect them, simply for the pleasure of having them around. And every one is, of course, unique.”

Weber also has a collection of Southwest ‘pysanky,’ especially created for her by Susan Summers, another of her ‘eggspert’ demonstrators. Summers has been making ‘pysanky’ for over 20 years, having originally been inspired by one of Weber’s workshops. “I went to one of her demonstrations and that was it—I was hooked!” she says. “I make the Southwestern themed ones now, on a small scale, just for Susan’s Christmas Shop, but most of the eggs I make are given as gifts. I just love doing it—and it’s also wonderful therapy. I don’t collect Ukranian eggs, since I make my own, but I do love to collect eggs from other countries.”

Greg Quevillon, who owns ‘Folk Arts of Poland’ also in downtown Santa Fe, says there are many serious egg collectors all over the world. He has specialized in folk art for over 15 years and works directly with the artists whose work he carries. He has eggs from all over Eastern Europe, ranging in price from less than $10 to as much as $75 each. The most expensive are traditional ‘pysanky’ created in the Ukraine by a well-known female artist.  “I hate to say it, but it seems like it’s a dying art,” he says. “Mass production and commercialization have definitely taken a toll on many of these traditional arts and crafts. I keep just a few of her pieces and I sell maybe one a month, mostly to collectors.”

The most famous decorative eggs are, of course, those created by master goldsmith Peter Carl Faberge for Tsar Alexander III of Russia. The first of these exquisite works of art came into existence in 1885, when the Tsar commissioned Faberge to make a special Easter egg for his wife. The result (the so-called ‘Hen-Egg’) was two and a half inches long, with a deceptively simple white enamel exterior. Inside was a golden yolk, which opened to reveal a gold hen with ruby eyes. The bird’s beak could also be raised, to expose a tiny, diamond replica of the imperial crown. A diamond encrusted Faberge egg, which came under the hammer at Christie’s auction house in 2007, sold for over $9 million.

At the other end of the spectrum, in 1875 John Cadbury launched the first mass produced Easter eggs in Europe a decade earlier. These eggs were small and made of very dark chocolate, and it wasn’t until the first milk chocolate eggs arrived on the scene in 1905 that the product really took off. Today’s best-selling Cadbury egg is the ‘creme egg’, with over 213 million being eaten each year. In fact, Easter now ranks a close second to Halloween as the biggest candy-consuming holiday of the year. Most children, it seems, receive at least three full size chocolate eggs at Easter time, with even more chocolates inside.

With today’s concerns about packaging, recycling and waste—not to mention childhood and adult obesity—giving meaningful, artistic creations that last at Easter time, rather than supporting empty consumerism, definitely seems like an option worth considering.

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