The Egg as Art Ancient Ukrainian Tradition Transforms 'Source of Life' into Intricate Masterpieces

Article excerpt

Steeped in ancient symbolism and decorated in hot wax, pysanky (pronounced pie-sun-key) is a colorful folk art tradition in Ukraine that harkens back to pagan times.

These days, the ancient tradition is celebrated at Easter, when Ukrainian churches and community groups gather to decorate eggs in intricate, painstaking detail.

Decorating eggs is more than just a pastime for those who lived in Ukraine when it was under the control of the Soviet Union, from 1922 to 1991. For them, it's a symbol of expressive freedom.

"This was one of the few traditions in the Soviet era that we were able to keep, so it's important to us," said Hanna Dziamko, a Mt. Lebanon pharmacist and native Ukrainian who came to the U.S. in 1997.

Every year, Ms. Dziamko teaches the pysanky tradition with her sister, Svetlana Tomson, who emigrated to the U.S. after perestroika in late 1989. The family, including mom Maria Dziamko -- who came to the U.S. in 1996 -- hails from the Zakarpatya region in western Ukraine.

Ms. Tomson remembers arriving at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on the day after Thanksgiving. She lived for a time in New Jersey but moved to Pittsburgh because it reminded her of the Zakarpatya region, with rolling hills and greenery.

She married the Rev. Tim Tomson, of St. Mary Ukrainian Orthodox Church in McKees Rocks, and together, the family teaches their children -- and the community -- about the ancient Ukrainian traditions.

"You have to know where you are and where you come from," Father Tomson said during a recent egg-decorating workshop at the church. "That's the great thing about America, we keep our ethnic traditions alive. And it gets more important as you get older."

Ms. Tomson and her sister founded the Ukrainian Community of Western Pennsylvania, which sponsors the egg-decorating workshops and other programs aimed at preserving Ukrainian tradition.

Val Ivanova, a cardiologist from Wexford, brought her husband Tariq Cheema and 8-year-old daughter Milla Ivanova to the workshop.

"I did this when I was little with my grandmother," said Ms. Ivanova, who came to the U.S. 12 years ago from Ukraine.

A third-grader at Marshall Elementary School in the North Allegheny School District, Milla said she loves learning about the traditions and coloring the eggs. She gave some of her egg art to her great-grandmother on a recent trip to Ukraine.

"It's always fun," Ms. Ivanova said. "We always did it before Easter."

"I like it!" Milla agreed.

But you don't have to be from Ukraine to appreciate the art of pysanky.

Bethaney Krzys and her husband Jerry Krzys drove to the church from Youngstown, Ohio, to participate in the workshop.

"I remember these eggs when I was little," said Ms. Krzys, who is part Ukrainian.

"I'm just the good husband," Mr. Krzys said.

Terry Maddox of Ross and her granddaughters Madison Dalton, 14, and Kennedy Dalton, 6, aren't Ukrainian, but they appreciate the folk art designs and beauty of the fragile eggs.

"Pittsburgh is unique with all the ethnic communities," Ms. Maddox said. "I think a lot of this gets lost over the years."

But why create such priceless designs on such a delicate canvas? Historians think they have the answer.

The egg as life

In their attempt to understand creation, "ancient people developed myths in which the egg was perceived as the source of life, the sun and the universe," according to the website of The Ukrainian Museum in New York City.

"The Ukrainian pysanka (from the word pysaty, to write) was believed to possess an enormous power not only in the egg itself, which harbored the nucleus of life, but also in the symbolic designs and colors which were drawn upon the egg in a specific manner, according to prescribed rituals," according to the website. "The intricately colored eggs were used for various social and religious occasions and were considered to be a talisman, a protector against evil, as well as harbingers of good. …