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Pysanky

Alexandra Romanenko's pysanky - Tucson, May, 1982
Alexandra Romanenko's pysanky - Tucson, May, 1982
[image courtesy of James S. Griffith]

The making of Easter eggs has developed into a highly complex and symbolic art form in Ukraine, a country for many years under Soviet domination, and just beginning to return to its traditions of devout Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. Ukrainian Easter eggs are called pysanky, singular pysanka - "things that are written upon." They are not painted, but rather produced by a complex wax-resist dying process, and as one can see, they can get very complex and lovely indeed. The late Mrs. Romanenko was born in Ukraine and emigrated to the United States after World War II. She had a reputation in Tucson as a strong and passionate carrier of Ukrainian traditions.

A pysanka by Mrs. Romanenko ready for presentation in its basket, March, 1982
A pysanka by Mrs. Romanenko ready for presentation in its basket, March, 1982
[image courtesy of James S. Griffith]

A main purpose of making pysanky is to give them to family members and respected outsiders. A gift of a pysanka is, among other things, the gift of life, so the egg is never blown but remains entire all of its "life." Each design and color on the pysanka has one or more symbolic meanings: the cross- hatching on this one represents netting, and refers to Jesus' promise to His disciples that they would become "fishers of men." When one gives a pysanka, one usually puts it in a small basket with plastic "grass," like this one.

Mrs. Alexandra Romanenko melting the wax on a pysanka by passing it through the flame of a candle
Mrs. Alexandra Romanenko melting the wax on a pysanka by passing it through the flame of a candle, Tucson, April, 1982
[image courtesy of James S. Griffith]

In addition to their meaning as Christian symbols, pysanky had an additional meaning for many older Ukrainian Americans. They represented the hopes of a free Ukraine. This strong national association may be among the reasons why pysanky-writers are usually careful to dress in traditional costume when demonstrating in public. On this occasion, Mrs. Romanenko was being interviewed on videotape.

The steps in making pysanky, by Helen Gaus of Tucson, April, 1983
The steps in making pysanky, by Helen Gaus of Tucson, April, 1983
[image courtesy of James S. Griffith]

Ms. Gaus was one of Mrs. Romanenko's students, and made this set to show the steps in making simple pysanky. The design is created by dipping a pinhead in wax and drawing on the egg. First she "wrote," as Ukrainians would say, on the white egg. She then dipped the egg in a yellow dye bath, wrote on it again, and dipped it in red. She finally melted the wax in the flame of a candle, and wiped it off, leaving the finished red egg with white and yellow designs. The same process is followed for the more complex eggs, except that a small hollow writing instrument called a kistka is used instead of a pinhead.

Anne Franzen writing on a pysanka, Tucson, April, 1984
Anne Franzen writing on a pysanka, Tucson, April, 1984
[image courtesy of James S. Griffith]

The egg has passed through its first (yellow) dye bath, and is being written on with a kistka before being plunged into the next color. Dyes move from lighter to darker for easily understood mechanical reasons, but for a symbolic reason as well - the darker colors represent the heart and the order of dying represents the triumph of heart (and faith) over intellect.

Pysanky display in Anne Myers' living room, Tucson, March, 1980
Pysanky display in Anne Myers' living room, Tucson, March, 1980
[image courtesy of James S. Griffith]

What happens to pysanky after they are made (often during Holy Week)? They are taken to church on Easter Sunday and blessed by the priest. Then they are given away. Their recipients place them on public display in some prominent place in the home - often in an oversized brandy snifter, as is the case here. Also on the shelves and the wall are other visual statements of Ukrainian identity.

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