The Ukrainian Art of Pysanky

  • Students at a pysanky egg decorating class at the Ukrainian Museum in Manhattan on March 26. (Photos by Kate Ryan for Voices of NY)
Aaron Lee looked up sheepishly from his work, afraid to bother his neighbors, their shoulders hunched, hands steady.

“I broke another egg,” said Lee, a first timer at the art of pysanky.

This year, Easter falls on April 16 for both the Eastern Orthodox Church and Western Christianity. In preparation, the Ukrainian Museum of New York hosted a series of pysanky egg decorating workshops the weekends of March 26 and April 8. Originally a pagan practice, psyanky, based on the Ukrainian word meaning “to write,” has since become an important part of the annual Eastern Orthodox celebration of Easter.

Lesia Lebed taught the March 26 workshop to 17 students – some curious newcomers to the practice, others deeply rooted in their Ukrainian heritage. Lebed said she began to practice pysanky as a young girl “a long, long time ago.”

First, the class watched a video about the history and art of pysanky. Then, under Lebed’s watchful eye, they began to pencil in their designs of geometric shapes and flowers. They held a stylus, or kistka, to a candle and dipped the hot kistka into the wax, mixing in a bit of soot in the process, and scooped the dark wax into the kistka’s funnel, ready to trace over the pencil.

Lebed patiently walked around the room and offered advice, careful not to make her students jump, lest they drop their art. She helped Jessica, one of the few children in the class, with her wax pattern. Jessica’s mother Christine said they are Ukrainian, but that she never practiced pysanky as a child. “I want her to learn, to get in touch with her roots,” said Christine.

The students gingerly placed their eggs into a jar of yellow dye for less than a minute. They added more wax design and returned to submerge the eggs in orange dye and repeated the process one last time in red.

“Ten more minutes,” Lebed called out. Two hours had flown by thanks to a process that took such focus and care.

Students were instructed to hold their eggs up to a candle, to wipe away the melting beeswax, and subsequently the pencil marks. Under the layers of wax lay a multicolored design.

Janet Kurka smiled with satisfaction at her egg and then chuckled. “The lady in the movie made it look a lot easier than it is,” she said. She placed her finished piece in a tissue-packed cardboard carry-out container and closed the lid, ready to take a little tradition home.

Kate Ryan is a member of the 2017 class of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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