Tradition of Easter egg decorating lives on

Of the many traditions associated with Ukrainian Easter (which is being celebrated this Sunday), the elaborately decorated eggs—also called “pysanky”—are likely the most easily recognized by those outside the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
An ancient tradition, it is one still carried on by many today, including some talented local artists like Laurie Bedard.
She first began decorating eggs about 13 years ago, but had thought about trying her hand at it for some time before. “I had always wanted to try it, but I was too shy to ask for help. So I just learned on my own,” Bedard said.
She went to the library, found some books on the subject, and began experimenting.
Because she didn’t have a “kistka,” the traditional tool used to apply wax to the egg, Bedard used a homemade replica—fashioned for her by her husband, Albert.
He made a series of metal funnels, with tips of different thicknesses for fine or heavier work.
Bedard’s first attempts at egg decorating were very simple and traditional, she said, using only two or three colours and simple designs. She later began to try more intricate and elaborate designs, including geometric shapes, and finally mustered the courage to ask for some advice.
She went to local resident Mary Sokolotuk, who had made Ukrainian Easter eggs for about 60 years. “She’s kind of like my mentor,” Bedard said. “Her eggs are so beautiful.”
In the last three years or so, Bedard has been branching out from the more traditional eggs—creating her own designs.
Some of her more unusual creations include the Virgin Mary painted on a goose egg with shades of green, and a work-in-progress: a Chinese scene of children playing painted on a duck egg in blue and white.
“A duck egg is the smoothest, easiest egg to work with,” Bedard noted.
Though chicken eggs are the norm, almost any egg can be used. In fact, Bedard currently is working on sanding down a large, dark green emu egg.
Traditional pysanky use only five colours, Bedard said: white, yellow, orange, red, and black. Also, the eggs are decorated with shapes, images, and symbols that carry meaning.
“A band around the egg means eternity and a butterfly represents the resurrection of Christ,” she explained.
In addition to her original designs, Bedard also has added some personal finishing touches to her eggs. For instance, some have been painted with 14-carat gold paint while others have tiny, sparkling crystals embedded in them for a dramatic effect.
Bedard fears her ancestors may disapprove of her more original creations. Her grandmother and great-grandmother both decorated eggs.
“I’ve changed the art and the style with the gold trim and the stones. I don’t know if they would appreciate the change,” she laughed, adding she believes art should be used for personal expression.
“The art is so versatile, your own personality comes through every time,” she remarked.
Historically, the eggs were prepared during Lent—the 40 days of fasting leading up to Easter. But Bedard makes her eggs year-round, and not only for Easter but for other special occasions, or for no occasion at all.
She sells many of her creations, and also has been commissioned to make some as gifts for special occasions.
“If people get married, I’ll make them a special egg for that, with their colours,” she noted. “I’ll put symbols in there that mean happiness, prosperity, and love.”
She also has donated some to local school fundraising draws. “I’d like to get a whole bunch made and sell them on the Internet at Easter time,” she noted.
An ambitious plan, Bedard admits, since making a single egg takes hours and hours of detailed, painstaking work.
“If I worked at it continuously, [it could take] three or four days easily, depending on how much colour and how much design I put on it,” she noted.
The eggs either can be cleaned out by poking a small hole in the bottom and draining out the yoke and albumen, or can be painted raw. They won’t smell over time so long as the egg does not crack, Bedard noted.
The insides will dry up after several years, and the dried yoke will make a rattling sound if shaken.
Once cleaned out, the artist begins to sketch the design on the egg in pencil. The dyeing process always goes from light to dark colours, she noted.
Using her electric “kistka,” which she eventually purchased once she became more comfortable with the art form, Bedard will first put wax on the egg in all the areas she wants to remain white.
Then the egg is dipped in yellow dye so the entire egg will be yellow, except for where the wax was applied.
Leaving the wax on the egg, she then adds wax to the areas she wants to remain yellow, then dips the egg in the orange dye. This process continues up until the last colour (black).
To remove all the wax, Bedard holds the egg up to a candle, then wipes it off with a cloth. She then adds any finishing touches, such as gold paint or crystals, and varnishes it.
Despite her 13 years of experience, Bedard said it is always exciting to work on a new egg.
“Every time I do an egg, I learn something new,” she said. “I don’t think you can ever learn it all.”
A dedicated artist who also enjoys painting, Bedard said the art of decorating eggs in the Ukrainian style is not reserved for the artistic.
“Anybody could do this art. It’s a matter of finding the time,” she reasoned.
For herself, it’s an art she can’t live without.
“It’s almost a form of artistic meditation. You don’t think about anything else. It’s very therapeutic,” Bedard said. “I’ll probably do eggs ’til I can’t see anymore.”