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Pysanky Eggs: An Abridged History

The art of pysanky is ever-changing. Michigan crafter Gail Lambka, who has been dyeing pysanky eggs since childhood, walks us through the history of of this ancient batik form and shows some new trending techniques.

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Trypillian pysanka.

The art of pysanky has changed greatly over several millennia but has managed to stay true to its roots. Yes, I did say millennia! The first sign of decorated eggs was seen in shards of ceramic eggs that date from the fifth century B.C. They were patterned in an ancient design called “Trypillian,” and that design is still an inspiration for artists today. If the design looks familiar, don't be surprised. It is found in artwork from many different civilizations: Eastern European,Thai, Chinese, Incan, and even Native American. Today, we see pysanky art moving in a whole new direction…and it's extremely exciting! 

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Batik method of pysanka.

A quick refresher on the art of pysanky: pysanky is a wax-and-dye-resist method commonly referred to as batik. Pysanky comes from the word “pysaty” which means “to write.” These eggs are not painted, but dyed. The artist starts with a blank canvas, in this case a plain egg. The basic design is drawn lightly on the egg and then the lines are covered with wax. The egg is dipped in a dye (for our purpose, let’s say the dye is red) and again the artist covers the egg with more wax, covering the area he wishes to remain red. 

 

This continues with several more colors until the design is complete. At this point the artist cannot see his design because it is underneath layers of wax. Once the wax is removed the design appears, almost like magic, and the artist is finally able to see what they created.

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A traditional pysanka pattern.

Most pysanky artists begin learning the art by copying traditional designs that have been handed down from generation to generation. These designs come from various regions of the Ukraine and the Baltic regions of Eastern Europe. Many are very geometric and highly detailed. 

 

The designs, both colors and shapes, have significant meaning and are created by the artist specifically for the recipient. For instance, an egg with many triangles would represent a "trio," which could symbolize the circle of birth, life and death, or the elements of fire, earth, water. In Christianity, it would symbolize the Holy Trinity. This might be an egg that would be given to the local priest. 

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Pysanka egg with "40 Triangles."

Another traditional design element is the way the egg is divided into sections. Division of an egg is a very essential part of traditional design and divisions are named to reflect their important place in the pysanky world. There are about 10 different ways to divide an egg, from basic to complex. One design division is called a saddlebag, another lattice.

 

There is even an egg called “40 triangles,” although when patterned properly, it actually has 48 triangles! The number 40 appears many times throughout the Bible, and anthropologists have theorized that it is a numerical substitute for the adjective "many."

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Many artists like to blend traditional pysanky design with a new age twist. This celestial egg was created in the traditional batik manner but the design is contemporary. Although it is not traditional, it remains true to pysanky roots in that the colors and symbols have significant meaning. Stars have always symbolized life, growth, and success. It was a great honor to receive a star pysanka fashioned just for you!

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Lenten pysanky.

Color isn’t always used in pysanky. Black-and-white eggs are especially treasured during the Lenten season, where color is discouraged. These eggs stand out in bold relief, and bring a stark beauty to the 40 days of Lent. It reminds us that simplicity itself is a treasure.

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A folk, flower design.

Folk art is another art form continuing to evolve within the pysanky community. The colors are very vibrant, and there is blend of styles. Both primitive and contemporary blend with a Mexican boho feel.  Floral symbols are very common in pysanky design, but this fabulous mix of old and new design is refreshing.

 

I find myself very drawn to this type of bold design as it also uses an etching technique on the egg. Etching is done on a pysanka by placing the egg in an acidic bath (like vinegar) --  the acid removes a layer of the eggshell. When completed, part of the design is raised and you can see and feel texture; the design has a three dimensional look...another design element added to the mix of color and pattern! 

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Dancing Girl pysanka.

My style has changed over the last 50 years, and even in my adult years, I feel I am still developing my own “voice.”

 

I still work as much with traditional design as I do designing my own non-traditional patterns. Much of this is due to the creativity and influence of other pysanky artists. Today I find myself really drawn to the folk art style -- this "Dancing Girl" series is a good example. Each egg depicts a different dancing girl motif -- it has been very popular with collectors!

 

Who knows what tomorrow will bring? But that's okay. I am still “growing up pysanky.” 

 

 

Photography by Gail Lambka.

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