With eye-catching colors and intricate designs, the traditional Ukrainian style of decorating eggs ― called pysanky ― is a mesmerizing art form in its own right.
But as the war in Ukraine wages on, the art of pysanky is taking on a new significance this Easter season: as a way for people, including those here in Maine, to show support for the Ukrainian people.
In advance of Easter, at least two pysanky decorating workshops and an online demonstration have been hosted by non-Ukrainian Mainers with experience in the craft, and another event, called “Pysanky for Peace,” is being held in Brunswick next week. The events are raising money for various charities working to help the people of Ukraine as well as bringing awareness to a special piece of the country’s culture.
“I love the idea of an art that has so much deep history in the Ukrainian culture, I love the idea of that art being shared and doing some good,” said Bristol-based watercolor artist Erica Qualey, who hosted a live pysanky-making demonstration on Facebook this week.
The exact roots of this form of egg decorating are unclear, according to a recent TIME story on the history of tradition, and different origin stories exist. But the centuries-old tradition toggles between both paganism and Christianity, according to Qualey. The tradition is commonly associated with springtime and Easter.
But the process is much more elaborate and intricate than your standard Easter egg dyeing kit.
The name pysanky ― or pysanka in the singular form ― is derived from the Ukrainian verb pysaty, which means to write, according to TIME, and refers to writing on the eggs.
Pysanky are created using a wax-resist method. The egg is drawn on using a tool called a kitska and melted wax. Then the egg is dipped in dye. The process is repeated to create a beautifully patterned egg.
“You just keep adding wax, dipping it in another color, adding wax, dipping it in another color, and you work from your light colors to your dark colors and just build up your pattern through a series of color dippings and in the end you heat the eggs and wipe the wax away and all your colors and patterns are left behind,” Qualey said.
Qualey ― who also works in a wax-resist watercolor style, called batik ― learned how to make pysanky about 20 years ago while she took a workshop in New Hampshire. It has since grown into tradition for her family to decorate eggs using this method around Easter, though her pysanky collection will often come out around Christmastime as gifts and decorations as well.
Pysanky are intended to be saved for more than just one season. Traditionally, the eggs are decorated with the raw contents still inside. Since eggs are porous, Qualey said these will dry out over time. However, Qualey said she prefers to blow out the eggs prior to decorating them. Modern homes are warmer, which can cause the contents of an egg to try out faster than the shell can handle, causing cracks.
“We’ll have little pysanky parties and invite some friends over and decorate eggs and sometimes we just do it as a family,” Qualey said. “You kind of feel warm and fuzzy when you pull them out because you can remember this person made this and this person made that.”
The geometric and floral designs that are a signature of this decorating style might seem intimidating. But Qualey said it’s actually quite easy to learn, especially once you understand how to look at the egg in sections and follow patterns that are widely available in books, as well as online.
Qualey, who is not Ukrainian herself, hosted a virtual demonstration on Thursday night. Though it was free, she asked people tuning in to consider donating to UNICEF, and about $800 was raised.
“It’s really heartbreaking and so hard to see everything going on over [in Ukraine] and just feel so helpless,” Qualey said. “[This craft] is a little piece of Ukraine that I’ve loved and participated in for such a big part of my life that I just felt like it would be nice to share.”
Up the coast from Qualey, Brooksville resident Abbie McMillen had a similar desire to put her pysanky knowledge to use. McMillen, who is also not Ukrainian, learned how to decorate eggs in this style about 15 or 20 years ago through a class at her local library.
After getting into the art form, McMillen started raising chickens so she could use their eggs to make pysanky. She stopped raising chickens several years ago, but she still had a basket full of eggs that she had blown out, and she had all of the supplies for decorating ― so she decided to host a workshop.
“It was because there is a need and the fact that I have the tools and the skills to help people learn how to do it and its 100 percent donation. I’m donating time and materials and people are donating money,” McMillen said.
The two workshops she hosted April 9 and 10 ― which were each limited to 10 people ― at the Brooksville Town House raised over $4,300 for the World Central Kitchen, an organization that is providing food to Ukrainian refugees.
With last weekend’s workshops resulting in a waitlist of about 20 people, McMillen plans to host two more next month, on May 21 and 22.
“You can’t know what’s going on and not want to do something, so it’s just something I was able to do,” McMillen said.