Pysanky: The Prettiest Art Form You’ve Never Heard Of

On a lunch hour not so long ago Ashley Venenga and I were talking hobbies over barbecue sandwiches and sweet potato fries.  I described my new life as a hobbyest blogger—a life that, for people who know me, was just inevitable, given my decades-long love of writing and my more recent history of building amatuer websites.  Ashley’s hobby, on the other hand, was a surprise;  she came to it like one comes to an abrupt jag in a road, pumping the brakes and straining to see what lies ahead.  She had been searching for Easter crafts on YouTube; what she discovered was something just short of a new vocation: the art of decorating eggs with hand-drawn designs.  Ashley spoke of eggs and dyes and beeswax, using exotic and lovely Ukrainian words that I later had to Google for proper spelling and pronunciation.  Her story was less obvious than mine; it seemed a privileged disclosure of talents normally obscured by the demands of her very technical day job.  Most of her colleagues know her as a bright and successful marketing data analyst; what they may not know is that in her off-hours she often loses herself in an intricate process of making art out of goose eggs.

Ashley Venenga
Ashley Venenga in her studio. The pink egg on her desk is a departure from traditional Ukrainian pysanky designs. She designed this one specifically for Circa 19xx.  Aren’t I lucky!

pysanka is an egg decorated with traditional Ukrainian folk designs.  The designs are hand-drawn on the surface of the egg using beeswax, which acts as a mask to control dye saturation as the egg is dipped into various colors.  I had never heard of this art form before, but it sounded so “old world” I couldn’t help but be intrigued.  And “old world” it is;  according to Wikipedia, the art of wax-resist egg decoration in Slavic cultures probably dates back to the pre-Christian era.  Later, Christians viewed the eggs as symbols of the tomb from which Christ rose.  A quick Google search for pysanky yields a stunning gallery of images featuring eggs of spectacular color and complexity.  I’m attracted to both the symbolism and the aesthetic qualities of  the eggs, so I thought it would be fun to feature the process on Circa 19xx.

But…

the era is all wrong.  Circa 19xx is about twentieth century stuff (more or less).  I thought a post on an ancient art form might be a little incongruent with my usual topics.  Ashley closed the gap for me.

“What if I used this as the inspiration piece for my design?” she asked as she pulled out a pretty little Victorian-style  (let’s call it Edwardian) cameo pin  and handed it to me.

Gasp!  “Yes!” I said, “that would be so awesome!”  Another testament to the fact that there’s a solution for every problem.  

The inspiration piece for Ashley’s pysanka design.

Fast forward to this past week:  Another lunch, this time featuring loaded baked potatoes.  Her Circa 19xx pysanka finished, I asked her for a recap of her foray into the beautiful world of pysanky (plural of pysanka).

Ashley:  I was looking around on YouTube for something to do for Easter, and I came across an instructional video by Lorrie Popow, who showed these really great eggs and how to do it.  As soon as I saw that, I knew I had to try it.   I ordered a kit on Amazon that included all the basic tools and materials I needed, and that’s how I got started.  I’ve been doing it for about five years now.

Jennifer:  So, you don’t know anyone else doing this?

Ashley:  I didn’t know anyone doing it, but now I do.  In fact, I’ve been to two amazing retreats for people like me to come together and work on our eggs.

Jennifer:  I love this idea of going on retreat to develop creative pieces.  What are the retreats like?

Ashley:  One of the retreats I attended was in Arkansas at Garvin Woodland Gardens.  This is a small retreat, capped at 40 people, and it’s part social gathering and part creative retreat.  People bring all of their egg stuff, work on their projects, and share ideas.  There are also door prizes.

Jennifer:  What a great thing to do to recharge.

Ashley:  Yeah, it was so much fun.  But I attended another retreat in Cleveland, Ohio that was hosted by my favorite pysanka artist, Mark Malachowski.  It was held in a convent, and it was one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been.  The accommodations were very sparse and simple.  There were only 15 people there, and the whole experience was pretty structured.  Mark gave us exercises to jump-start the creative process.

Jennifer:  Wow, like what kind of exercises?

Ashley:  My favorite activity worked like this: he gave each of us a box containing a random assortment of junk.  Our challenge was to create a design inspired by those items.  Then he gave us pictures of nature and challenged us to draw our color inspirations from them.

Jennifer:  I LOVE that.  

Ashley:  Yeah, it was really cool.

Jennifer:   So tell me about your other pieces.  Is there a recurring theme that’s reflective of your personal style?

Ashley Yes.  I like to design eggs that tell a story.  My favorite egg of all time is one I designed based on the story of Streganona.  I’ve done eggs featuring the nativity story, as well.  Another one I like is an egg I did that was designed as a carousel.   All of these eggs show different scenes as you turn them.

Jennifer:  So, prior to finding pysanky, did you consider yourself an artistic person?

Ashley:  Sort of.  I’m very mathematically inclined, so I’m pretty good with spacial calculations.  At least I can line things up on a grid!  What’s great about working with eggs is that this is an organic material.  They’re imperfect, and as such, are forgiving when you make a mistake.  One of the things I have learned through this process is that it’s OK to not be perfect.  That’s extremely freeing.

Jennifer:  Clearly I need to take up this hobby.

Traditional pysanky. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

I asked Ashley to walk me through the pysanky process.  There are a lot of steps!  Naturally you have to begin with an egg.  She prefers goose eggs because they’re a good size and the easiest egg type with which to work.  She buys her eggs online already emptied of their contents. 

Tools of the trade:  A tension lathe (pictured here), grid paper, dyes, an electric kistka (the wand used to draw on the egg) and beeswax are needed for this project.
The design begins as a sketch on grid paper. Ashley usually bases her design on an inspiration piece. In this case the inspiration piece is the cameo pin.  The grid is then recreated on the egg using the lathe.  This is tricky, because the original sketch is flat; the egg is a curved surface, so adjustments have to be made.
The design is then sketched on the egg using a pencil. This part completely fascinates me. Remember that this is an empty shell and quite fragile. I was a nervous wreck just bringing the finished egg home; I can’t imagine drawing on it.
Here is the first application of color. The frame of the cameo on the egg is yellow, so that’s the base color. You can make out the sketch of the frame on the photo at right.   It’s important to avoid getting dye inside the egg, as that will prevent the shell from taking other colors.
Here is where the masking comes in. Ashley is covering aspects of the design she wants to remain yellow with beeswax using the kistka.  Once she’s done, it will be ready to dip into the next color.  This process continues, layer upon layer, as various parts of the egg  are masked and it’s submerged into other colors of dye.  Lightest colors come first, and the darkest colors are applied last.
Ashley using the kistka to apply wax.
Not so pretty at this stage. Here you can see the design taking shape, but it now has layers of masking wax. The cameo itself will ultimately contain very subtle shades of gray.
Layers of color. Here you can see how the yellow of the scrolled frame around the cameo has been masked to retain its color as the egg has been submerged into various dyes.
The wax is melted away.
Time to wipe the wax off for the amazing reveal!
The finished product!

I know myself well enough to realize this is not an art form I could ever attempt.  I don’t have an artistic hand, for one thing, and certainly don’t have the patience (or the eyesight!) to work with such detail.  But isn’t it wonderful to know that our world is peopled with creative, capable artists and crafters who strive to make beautiful pieces?   One of God’s great gifts to us is the ability to create things.   Life is good.

Special thanks to Ashley Venenga for making this lovely egg for me and my blog.  And an enormous “thank you” to her husband Michael, who was very gracious and accommodating when I roped him into taking all of these pictures!

Until next time…

Jennifer Passariello

 

6 Comments

  1. Linda Lishchuk Hupert

    Very good article and I missed seeing Ashley at the retreat in Arkansas. I love the cameo she did.And, I’ve seen some of her other beautiful work while being with her at the retreat. I would like to make one correction to your article. The picture you have showing as pysanky are actually Sorbian-Wendish eggs and are done with a slightly different method than the pysanky. Pysanky are written with wax using a stylus called a kistka, whereas, the Sorbian eggs apply the wax with a goose feather and drop pull method. These eggs come from an area in Germany and are not truly Ukrainian. They are beautiful also, but perhaps showing Lorrie People’s eggs, which you mention, or perhaps using one of the pictures from the cover if the Incredible eggs calendars would have been a truer depiction of Ukrainian pysanky.

    • jkpassariello

      Thanks for reading, Linda, and thanks also for your note about the picture and the distinction between Sorbian-Wendish eggs and pysanky. Such a fascinating subject area–and far more complex than I realized! Thanks again.

  2. Jennifer and Ashley,
    just a wonderful interview and a really awesome egg. love the colors and design. I really enjoyed see Ashley’s creative process through the photos.
    keep creating and making art!
    mark m.
    *very talented photographer too

    • jkpassariello

      Thanks so much for reading! I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn about this. The egg featured in this post is now on display in my breakfast nook.

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