Cultural Dyes

In Ukrainian culture, the art of pysanky is an integral Easter tradition.

April 3, 2017

photo supplied

From the world’s largest pysanka standing tall on the Vegreville horizon, to prominent displays in Baba’s dining cabinet, Ukrainian Easter eggs are a lasting relic of Western Canada’s cultural foundations. 

For local artist Larissa Pohoreski, the beauty of this longstanding cultural craft lies in the process involved in creating each design. She’s been learning how to make pysanky since the age of three, when her mother handed her wax crayons and a raw egg. Now, it’s a tradition she can’t imagine her life without.

“It’s been a part of my family’s life for so long — every year during Lent, our dining room would become the pysanky room,” she says. “And now, I still go back to making them every year. It’s relaxing, almost meditative, to take the time to make each design.”

The word pysanka comes from the Ukrainian verb pysaty, meaning “to write.” To make the eggs, a small stylus called a kistka is used to write with molten beeswax over the shell. Traditional designs include geometric shapes like triangles and crosses, or natural motifs like trees, wheat and flowers.

The egg is then placed in the lightest colour of dye, and any areas covered with wax remain white as the rest of the egg is stained. After the first round of dye, the egg is dried off, and another round of wax is written on before it is placed in the next darkest dye. The process is repeated multiple times, with each round preserving colours and details that form part of an intricate design. After the final dye is applied, the wax is melted off to reveal the multicoloured pattern beneath.

Traditionally, pysanky were made by the women in a family in the weeks leading up to Easter. Each year during Lent, mothers and daughters would write pysanky, with methods and designs being passed down through generations. The eggs would be collected throughout the period, and brought to church on Easter Sunday to be blessed. 

Pohoreski’s love of making pysanky has meant a surplus of decorated eggs some years. “I give them away to my friends and family — or they go to my mom’s house,” she laughs.

While writing was traditionally done on raw eggs, in modern times hard-boiled or blown-out eggs are often used. Luba Tsisar, owner of the Ukrainian Orbit Store in downtown Edmonton, recommends that beginners start with hard-boiled eggs, even though it’s not traditional.

“They’re a bit sturdier than the blown-out ones, so you’re less likely to get all the way through colouring it and accidentally break it,” she says.

Tsisar notes that although the practise began as a cultural activity, it now expands far outside the Ukrainian community. Many local schools now include an education on pysanky in curricula, exposing  children from different backgrounds to the art.

“All kinds of people come in to get supplies and try it out,” she says. “It’s a nice family activity to spend an afternoon making pysanky, and it’s actually pretty easy to start out.”

 This article appears in the April 2017 issue of Avenue Edmonton. Subscribe here.


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