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Ohio artist’s Easter eggs carry on Ukrainian tradition

  • Akron Beacon Journal
  • Published Saturday, April 19, 2014, at 7:27 a.m.

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AKRON, Ohio – Casual observers might call Vera Kap’s eggs beautiful or intricate or even exquisite.

But Kap knows they’re so much more.

The West Akron, Ohio, resident is a pysanky artist, who decorates Easter eggs using methods and motifs that have been part of Ukrainian culture for centuries. To her, the eggs aren’t just springtime ornaments. They’re a connection to her heritage and proof that tradition can triumph over hardship and oppression.

Kap will display and sell examples of her work this weekend at the Elegant Egg & More, an annual show and sale of eggshell art sponsored by the Ohio Egg Artists Guild. This year, the show occupies a new location, Our Lady of the Elms in West Akron.

Pysanky (PIH-sahn-kih) are eggs decorated with a process that employs wax and dyes, using colors and symbols that have special meanings in Ukrainian tradition. A single egg is a pysanka.

Kap, the child of Ukrainian-born parents, learned the art from her mother when she was growing up in Cleveland.

“This is something that’s passed from mother to daughter” in Ukrainian culture, she said. “For centuries.”

The tradition is believed to date to pre-Christian times and possibly as far back as the Trypillian culture, an ancient Eastern European civilization. When Christianity spread to Ukraine, the pagan symbols used on the eggs were given Christian associations, and pysanky became a form of folk art connected to Easter.

The resilience of the art form amazes Kap. It survived periods of starvation in Ukraine. It survived years of war. It survived Communist rule, when religious practices were outlawed.

When the Soviet Union broke up and Ukraine regained independence in 1991, the work of many Ukrainian pysanky artists suddenly emerged, she said. “So somebody had to have done them in secret for years and years.”

Pysanky are created using a wax-resist dyeing technique, in which the eggs are dyed in progressive stages and wax is applied to resist the dye and prevent it from coloring certain parts of the eggshell.

The process of drawing the designs onto the eggs with wax is called writing, Kap said. That’s because the term pysanky comes from the verb pysaty, which means “to write,” and because the wax is applied with a writing stylus called a kistka.

A rich symbolism is used in the designs. Geometric shapes and simple pictures have particular meanings: A triangle, for example, stands for the Holy Trinity; a rooster symbolizes fertility. Likewise, the colors have special associations – black with mortality, yellow with youth and happiness, red with divine love and the passion of Christ, and so on.

Even the egg is symbolic, representing the renewal of the earth after winter and the rebirth of humankind to eternal life.

Early on, Kap said, pysanky were dyed only in a limited number of colors that could be made from natural sources. Peddlers brought manufactured blue and purple dyes to the Ukrainian villages in the 1800s, but because those dyes were expensive, those colors were used sparingly.

For her pysanky, Kap uses chicken and goose eggs with the centers blown out. She washes the eggs beforehand in water and vinegar so the aniline dyes will take, she said, and she even injects some of the solution into the emptied eggs with a syringe to clean them and prevent odor.

She starts by sketching a design onto an egg in pencil, and then uses an electric kistka – a tool that works a little like a glue gun – to cover those lines with a fine bead of wax so they’ll stay white throughout the dyeing process. Then the egg goes into the first in a series of dye baths, progressing from the lightest color to the darkest.

After each dip into a jar of dye, Kap uses wax to cover the areas she wants to remain that color. A knife might be used to scrape off a blob of excess wax; a marker might be used to color in an area she doesn’t want to dye or to repair a splotchy area.

After the final dye bath, she melts off the wax with a candle flame to reveal the multicolored design underneath. She then covers the egg with three coats of varnish, applied with rubber-gloved hands.

Kap turns her dining room over to the pysanky-making process for two or three months each year. She might spend seven or eight hours a day on her art, she said, although she can work at it for only about an hour at a stretch.

“Sometimes I’ll look at my own bowl and go, ‘Oh, I haven’t done that in 20 years,’ ” she said.

People sometimes suggest she adorn her eggs with additions like rhinestones or glitter, she said, but she’s adamant about sticking with the old ways.

It’s all about preserving a bit of her culture, she said. “I just feel that if we’re going to pass along a tradition, then it should be authentic.”

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