Sunday, March 12, 2006

It's Cranky Pysanky Time

All set up, raring to go. And you thought I was cranked out last weekend! Warning! Warning! Danger Will Robinson! I get so cranky when I'm doing my eggs. I'm so enthralled in the process that I don't want to be bothered--not good for a "momma." I guess the family has become used to it over the years. They know I don't mean anything by ignoring them--I'm just busy, that's all. Don't talk to me, don't ask me questions. I can sit for hours on an egg without saying boo to any of them. Maybe they like it. Better than barking orders like last weekend, huh boys?

Pysanky translated into English is "to write." Taditionally, it is made by the women in the family during Lent. (I'm changing that the best I can!) The women would gather after the kids were put to bed and begin working on their "art." It was to be a time of meditation and usually a "God, help me" was said before sitting down to a batch of eggs.

Me? I sit down with my ishuffle, music blasting in my ears, daring anyone to bother me. Tonight's listening pleasure, as listed on my play list: Big Audio Dynamite, Bonnie Rait, Carly Simon, Cold Play, Damien Rice, David Mead, Frank Zappa, Gorillaz, John Prine, Little Feat, Lucinda Williams and Fleetwood Mac. Duh, puts it in alphabetical order by first name.

When I was still in Virginia, a good friend of mine, who is a graphic artist, helped me put together a little brochure that explained all about the eggs. This way, when I gave them away, it had an explanation included. (You see, each color and each symbol has a different meaning.) Each year, I make about a dozen or so. We used to go to NY for Ukrainian Easter and off to St. George's we'd all go. I'd include that year's pysanky and have them blessed. I would then return home, box them up real pretty and give them away to all my friends and family. We don't make it up there anymore since we've moved to Tennessee. I miss it. I'm sorry that the boys miss out on the wonderful family celebrations. It's just become too much of an ordeal getting there since we're here and the inlaws are in upstate. It takes all day just to get there and there's just not enough time for a long weekend journey. If you're interested in learning more about pysanky, go to this website, rather than me rambling on more than I need to.

When the kid was a toddler I was asked by a friend to make some pysanky to sell at local gift shop in Leesburg, VA. The town had what was called First Friday where all the little shops would stay open late on the first Friday of each month and have an open house type deal. They'd serve food and wine and each place usually had an exhibit of some sort. Well, I was the exhibit. I brought all my goods in and set up a table near the back and demonstrated just how pysanky was made. I had been demonstrating for the kids' classes for years, so it only felt natural to sit there and be asked questions, this time from adults though. The same year, the print shop who printed up my little brochures wanted some to sell at his gift shop in DC. I made so many pysanky that year that I totally burned out and lost sight of the beauty in each one. I will never do that again. It makes a difference when you're making them to sell and when you making them to give away as a sign of love.

Now, each year, I'm lucky if I get a dozen made during Lent. I try and get one done a day. It's a very long and tedious process, and there is always at least one (always the best one, of course) that ends up getting broken and thrown away. I have broken one in every way possible--dropping it, squeezing it too hard, exploding in the oven when I'm removing the wax, putting too much air in it when I'm blowing the contents out; you name it, I've broken it that way! It's extremely frustrating.

Here , I'm making the dye. It's a non-edible dye, so these are not to be used for your eggs to be eaten! I either get my supplies from Surma's, which is right across the street from St. Georges in NYC, or from The Ukrainian Gift Shop (mail order because they're in Minnesota).

The dye can last for several years; but this year, I needed new orange and black.

I had to set up in the dining room, not good. I moved my big working table from the study into the living room at Christmas and it fits better there, so there it will stay. The study was perfect because it can be closed off. Now I have to worry about the cats getting on the table and playing soccer with my eggs!
I use these pattern books as my guides when I'm drawing on my eggs. I do add some ideas at times, but mostly I need a plan in front of me. Jane Pollack is my all-time favorite egg artist. You can see from the cover of her Decorating Eggs how amazing her eggs are. I've tried a couple of hers, all very detailed. In fact, the wedding ring egg at the top I made for my friend's marriage. I have yet to give it to her as I didn't like the way it turned out. That was way back in 1998! Oy.

The first thing I do is soak a good egg in vinegar and water for about 15 minutes. (You need to really take a look at an egg before you use it. If there is the tiniest hairline crack, it will break before you are finished!!) The vinegar takes the layer of film off that is on eggs and removes any oils. I also clean my hands good with vinegar. I've left more than my share of finger prints on eggs in the dying process. You have to remember, anything that is covered with oil or wax, the dye will not adhere to. Needless to say, my hands are a mess during this time. I don't use any handcream, and the vinegar just rubs them raw. That in addition to the lovely dies left on my fingers, I'm just beautiful dawling.

These are the writing instruments used. They're called kistky (kistka singular). On the top picture, I have the more modern-day ones. They come in extra fine, fine, medium and thick--just like a writing pen. The lower picture is of the traditional ones. Depending on my line, I pick and choose what works best for my drawing. I even have an electric one, but it's a pain to change the funnel, so I prefer the old fashioned ones.

You heat the funnel by placing it over the candle flame.

You can then cup some beeswax that will melt right into the bowl. You can see the top square is what the beeswax looks like when you first purchase it. The bottom, all melted and black.

You then begin to draw your design. You have to think backwards. It's like batiking or tie dying. What you cover up will be that color. What I am covering here with wax will be white. I always have to start my first egg of the year with a standard design; you know, to get my sea legs, so to speak.

This will all be white.

You then dip the egg in the lightest color you are going to use. I always start with yellow. What I wax over now will be yellow.

Then I dip it in orange. What I cover in wax now will be orange.

Pink. Again, what I cover will be pink.

My final color is usually black.

From here, I let them sit for a day or so. Last year was the first year I followed Jane's suggestion of removing the contents before removing the wax. I used to remove the wax by using the candle flame, melting a little and rubbing a little. These days, I put them all in a very low heated oven and do 5 or 6 at a time. The wax drips down and you just wipe it clean.

Like I said, I now blow the egg before removing the wax. This is done, very carefully by poking a hole in the bottom of the egg. (Tradition is that the small tip of the egg sits upwards when on display.) I have a little accordion type pump that uses a syringe-type-deal that pumps a little air in the hole, a little yolk comes out, a little pump, a little yolk, etc. until it's all clean.

The last of the process is to coat the eggs with shellac. This makes them more durable and gives them a nice shine. I use a wood polyeurothane. It's very stinky and sticky, so I use gloves when I'm working with the stuff. You put a couple of drops in the palm of your hand and rub it all over the egg. I use ceramic holders and set the egg carefully on a prong to let it dry for several days. Since it's always rainy in the spring, it sometimes takes a week for them to dry completely!!

I'll post more as I begin to remove the contents and melt the wax and shellac them. So far, so good. I've finished two--the kid one. Yea.


Cathy said...

Fascinating Rosa! I can't wait to see your eggs with the wax removed! I didn't realize you blow out the eggs after you dye them - that would be heartbreaking to lose an egg after all that work.

John Ivey said...

That is some incredible craftsmanship you've developed in creating your pysanky. Hope you didn't get too cranky. In any case, the eggs are beautiful! I wish I still had mine. I think it got broken. Do you ever think you'll do any more stained-glass?

Rosa said...

Cathy: I've broken more eggs in the end than I care to admit. All having to go in the trash. grrrrr

John: I think baby broke your last one? I need to get another one to you for good luck!

shoofly said...

wow, these are gorgeous! thanks for sharing the process!

Nefertitichild said...

Hiya! I'm a pysanky artist too-- newly addicted (I'm 17. Just set up my attic haven studio this year. I realized after last Easter that I just couldn't wait a whole year to do them again and needed a place for year-round egging).

Do you ever have trouble with mold getting in your dyes? Maybe it's the climate I'm in... last year I thought it was happening because my dyes weren't totally sealed, but this year I made new ones and keep them in tightly closed pickling jars. Recently I've spotted slight evidence of mold in a few of the colors.

Also, I think it's cool that you don't usually use the electric kistka. I recently decided that I wouldn't go electric because I believe the true art of it lies in how you can handle the wax with your own hands; the skill is that you know how to manipulate the kistka to make it give you the line and consistency you want -- perfection isn't everything!

Nefertitichild said...

Another question: I've only grown up hearing my non-Ukrainian family say the word, and have searched for it high and low in dictionaries. How do you pronounce "pysanky?"

Rosa said...

A note to Nefertitichild:

It's pronounced piss-ong-kee or piss-ong-ka (singular). Yes, I do have problems with mold too. I don't worry about it unless it gets thick and messes with the die not adhering to the eggs. Some dies are better than others. I don't know why. Where do you get your supplies? I'd love to see some of your designs. Good for you for doing it all year round. Then, when you get the whim, you can just do it. The worst is having to lug it out and all.

Thanks for visiting!!

Nefertitichild said...

I got my supplies from, and was very satisfied with my experience there. I will definitely post some pictures soon! I have another trade question for you: have you discovered a way to ensure that the wax comes out black? It drives me crazy that it sometimes comes out dark and thick, sometimes clear and runny. When it's clear I can't see where I'm going and then I make mistakes! :( I enjoyed those pages you linked to above. Thanks!

Rosa said...

You can actually purchase black wax. It comes in sticks or cubes. It's for the electric kitska since there's no carbon from the candle. Check your site or go to:

Have fun! Keep me posted!!

Anonymous said...

Rosa, do you teach pysanky in the Nashville area? I'd love to learn this! I've been an admirer of the art form for years. Wendy

Rosa said...

Wendy, I don't teach it, no. Do you live in the area? Let me know.

Wendy said...

Oh, rats! I was really hoping you would teach! I live in Murfreesboro, but I'd be willing to drive anywhere to learn this -- do you know of anyone who DOES teach it? My email address is if it's easier for you to communicate that way. Thanks! Wendy



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