- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Thinking about decorating eggs this year but bored by those same old supermarket dye kits? Rest assured: This Easter, you don’t have to put all your eggs in one basket. There’s as much variety in egg decoration as there are Christians in Christendom.

You can try your hand at pysanka, the Ukrainian art of egg decorating, which is practiced in similar forms throughout Eastern Europe.

Like to work with scissors? Try snipping your way into an egg with the Northern Virginia Studio Eggers, who produce decorated eggs throughout the year.

You can gaze on Faberge creations at the Hillwood Museum; roll eggs on the White House lawn; and generally dye, glue and wax your way into a genuinely one-of-a-kind creation.

Whatever you do, though, it helps if you have the right state of mind.

Patience, concentration and stillness are the three principles essential to the art of egg dyeing. According to Jurij Dobczansky, an expert in pysanka who has been running the annual pysanka workshop at the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine in the District for more than 20 years, those three principles are in fact far more needed than either a firm hand or a perfectly executed product.

Pysanka eggs are complex and often highly symbolic in color and design; a carefully crafted egg can take more than three hours to produce. Yet the results, practitioners say, are well worth the time, for both the egg and the individual.

“People look at it as a wonderful hobby,” says Mr. Dobczansky, who also serves as the shrine’s librarian. “And it’s also a wonderful activity for Christians, especially at Easter.”

Pysanka — which derives from the Ukrainian “pysaty,” meaning “to write” — is just one of the many methods of egg decorating that can be found this time of year. All around the Washington area and beyond, skilled and fledgling egg artisans are carefully dyeing, scratching and painting everything from tiny quail eggs to massive ostrich eggs.

Despite the variety, the different genres show some uncanny similarities. Would-be egg dyers thumbing through books on pysanka, for instance, are struck by the marked resemblance between age-old Ukrainian designs and those found in works of Navajo and other Southwest American Indian art.

Many of the projects of the Northern Virginia Studio Eggers, a chapter of the International Egg Crafters Guild, capture something of the spirit of Carl Faberge’s masterpieces, albeit without the jewels. Most egg crafters will tell you that working with eggs helps them get centered, even if they’re not expert like Mr. Dobczansky.

• • •

Why eggs? Many cultures use eggs to symbolize birth and fertility.

Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of love and fertility, may have been the inspiration for Ostara, the Anglo-Saxon deity associated with spring and fertility. The Old English word for Easter, “Eastre,” is thought to refer to Ostara.

An early legend has Ostara turning her pet bird into a rabbit that laid brightly colored eggs, which Ostara then distributed to children. That may well be the reason we have an Easter Bunny, not an Easter chicken or some other bird. As Christianity spread, many traditional signs and symbols were incorporated into its practice.

Although no two eggs are exactly alike, eggs themselves are masterpieces of design, a perfect package of protection for the life inside. The history of egg decoration reaches far into the ancient past, well before Christianity and its Easter celebration took hold.

In the 8th century B.C., a ruler of the Zhou dynasty in China gave out painted eggs as edible gifts. Zoroastrians in Persia marked the beginning of their new year with gifts of dyed or gilded eggs, while Jews placed a roasted egg on the Seder plate as part of their celebration of Passover.

Jesus’ last supper, which was a Seder dinner, may be the reason Christians associate eggs with Easter. Yet throughout the Christian community, egg traditions vary.

In Poland, different colored eggs represent the variety of eggs the Virgin Mary boiled to amuse the Christ child. In Austria, many eggs are green, to represent spring, while in Bavaria, eggs are painted with watercolors and hung outside on specially constructed arches. The English like to imprint their eggs with various plant leaves, while in Mexico, empty eggs are filled with confetti.

• • •

Perhaps none is so striking as those decorated in the pysanka tradition, in which wax designs are traced on the egg before it is placed into a series of colored aniline dyes. After each dye cycle, the pysanka artist covers more of the design with wax until, finally, the wax is melted over a flame and the design colors literally come to light. Finally, the whole egg is coated with varnish and its contents carefully blown out.

At Mr. Dobczansky’s recent workshop on the art of pysanka at the Ukrainian National Catholic Shrine, some 80 folk of varying ages and skill levels assembled for the annual event, now in its 22nd year.

Fully a third were children, fresh from soccer practice or other Sunday-morning activities, filled with energy and hardly seeming ready for a three-hour session on the art of Ukrainian egg decorating. Another third were newbies, folks such as Sigrid Ebert of Bethesda and her friend Sonya Sanchez, who had always been fascinated by the art of pysanka and now wanted to do it on their own.

“They’re gorgeous,” Miss Ebert said. “I collect them, and I always wanted to try it.”

The rest were regulars such as Brian Trently of Triangle, Va., who each year tackles increasingly sophisticated designs.

Another regular was 10-year-old Zenon Smith from Snow Hill, Md. He began crafting eggs when he was 5. His mother, who is Ukrainian, keeps a display case at home to chart his progress. He’s at one of the all-children tables, but he’s intent on his work.

“Sometimes, my hand starts to shake,” Zenon said. “I get so nervous that I’m going to make a mistake.”

Despite the hubbub, Zenon’s lines were pretty straight. It’s amazing how much you can shut out when you’ve got a kistka in your hand — that’s the stylus-like implement pysanka artisans used to trace their designs.

Kistkas come in different sizes and widths, and some are even electric nowadays.

Kistkas can be tricky, but dogged practice generally produces measurable results, as Christine Robinson, 15, of Temple Hills, saw when she fashioned an egg featuring her own flower and heart designs.

“It’s beautiful,” she said with a smile, turning her egg to allow a better view. “I really like it.”

That’s the beauty of pysanka. You don’t have to be an expert to make an egg, and the results are far more satisfying than simply dyeing a bunch of eggs. You may not make as many, but those you do finish are far more meaningful.

• • •

Pysanka’s symmetry of symbol and design must have captivated Faberge, the jeweler to the imperial Russian court who meticulously crafted an Easter egg for Czar Alexander III in 1885 as a present for Czarina Maria Fedorovna.

Faberge and his workshop went on to craft more eggs, 50 in all, for Alexander III and Nicholas II, each with its own special surprise concealed inside. Two of these — the Twelve Monogram Easter Egg of 1895 and the Catherine the Great Easter Egg of 1914, both designed for Nicholas II — can be found at Hillwood Museum and Gardens in Northwest, which houses the most comprehensive collection of 18th- and 19th-century Russian imperial art outside Russia, including about 80 pieces by Faberge.

Hillwood is open for tours by reservation and for special events — such as Sunday’s Family Day, when youngsters and others gathered for a workshop in making Faberge-style eggs. They saw a costumed interpreter as Czar Nicholas II, who told them how he and his family celebrated Easter with Faberge eggs. And they took part in a Russian egg-rolling game in the garden behind the mansion.

• • •

Something of the whimsy of Faberge’s creations can be found in the works of the Northern Virginia Studio Eggers, who meet every month in Falls Church to share ideas, learn new techniques, and, of course, work on eggs.

There is no dyeing here. Instead, the ladies and gentlemen of the Northern Virginia Studio Eggers snip, feather and bead their eggs into some unexpected and surprisingly intricate creations.

“Eggs are not just for Easter anymore,” says club member Terry Garvis of Leesburg, the group’s program chairman, who taught all of her grandchildren to “do” eggs. “I used to do sewing and crafts; now I just do these.”

Crafted eggs such as Mrs. Garvis’ can have doors, windows or even a music box tucked inside. They can be draped with tulle, carved into filigree or covered with decoupage. One egg on display at a recent meeting was fashioned as a china cabinet. Open up the hinged doors and voila: A tiny mechanism concealed in the base activates an interior light strip.

Egg crafters haunt the miniature markets, looking for just the right dog or bird or whatever to be given pride of place inside their egg. Chicken eggs are frowned on, however; most of the Northern Virginia Eggers use goose eggs, which are larger. A few use ostrich eggs, which are larger still.

“Goose eggs have a thicker shell,” explains Carol Lewandowski of Herndon, the eggers’ corresponding secretary. “They’re not as likely to break while you’re working on them.”

Although artisans have been working with eggs for centuries, egg crafting really began to pick up momentum about 25 years ago, Mrs. Lewandowski says. Tools of the trade include toothpicks, rulers, scissors, glue and various cutting implements.

“There are some real horror stories about eggers getting stuck with Krazy Glue,” says Mary Sprague, who sheepishly admits gluing an eggshell to her hand a few years back. (She was able to disengage herself thanks to repeated applications of peanut butter and cooking oil.)

Within the art, certain crafters have developed their own styles.

Christine Zwennes of Reston, a past treasurer of the group, is known for her beadwork, Ed Sims of Arlington for his intricate carving. In fact, Mr. Sims is considered one of the best eggers in the country. Yet even novice eggers are unafraid to try new techniques.

No two crafted eggs will ever be exactly the same.

“People are unique, so what they do to an egg is going to be unique,” Mrs. Zwennes says.

Crafters tend to pick up techniques at the shows and conventions that are held throughout the country. If you are interested in learning pysanka, however, you may want to take a class, such as the one Baltimore’s Anna Kueberth gives. She’ll design it meet your needs and adapt it to your skill level.

Mrs. Kueberth, a Baltimore native, has been teaching pysanka for more than 20 years, ever since she learned the art from an elderly Ukrainian woman who lived a few doors down in her old Baltimore neighborhood, Canton.

“People used to have decorations in their windows, and she had one with all these pysanky eggs,” Mrs. Kueberth says, using the plural of the word “pysanka.”

“I stopped one day to admire it on the way back from the market, and she came out and asked me if I’d like to learn.”

Until a few years ago, the art of pysanka was virtually unknown in the Ukraine, after having been discouraged under Soviet rule because of its connection with Christianity, Mrs. Kueberth says. Now, groups of American artisans make trips back to teach the art to a new generation of Ukrainians.

“A lot of the old ways had been lost because of communism,” Mrs. Kueberth says, “but here in the United States, immigrant communities have kept the old ways going.”

Every year, she makes up a batch of pysanka eggs and takes them to the Ukrainian church in Baltimore’s Highlandtown area, where the elderly ladies still remember when the art was done in the old country.

Unlike Mr. Dobczansky, Mrs. Kueberth doesn’t eschew all modern innovations. For one thing, she encourages the use of electric kistkas and even electric hair dryers to melt the wax because they can be safer than candles. And Mrs. Kueberth says alcohol lamps burn with a cleaner flame than candles.

So when Mrs. Kueberth’s student Louise Gay of Lutherville, Md., hunkers down over her egg at the home of Mrs. Kueberth’s sister, Catherine Waters, in Baltimore’s Hamilton neighborhood, she’s drawing extremely fine lines in melted wax with the help of an electric kistka and an alcohol lamp.

Holding her egg literally “like an egg,” Mrs. Gay carefully traces the wax lines she wants with a kistka, with one eye fixed on her teacher. Husband Bob is far more venturesome, scrawling in lines and figures as quickly as he can.

Either way is fine with the boss. “This is a folk art,” Mrs. Kueberth says. “It’s not supposed to be perfect.”

The basics, of course, are the same, whether you are working with electric instruments or candles.

“You should put your best into it,” Mrs. Kueberth says. “It’s like a prayer. You don’t give God your last 10 percent; you give it off the top.”

Exhibits, tutors help carry on egg crafting

Looking for a glimpse of Faberge brilliance, or want to try your hand at some decorated eggs of your own? Here are a few resources:

• Hillwood Museum and Gardens: 4155 Linnean Ave. NW. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Open on select Saturdays and Sundays for Family Day and other special events. The most comprehensive collection of 18th- and 19th-century Russian imperial art outside Russia includes about 80 pieces by Carl Faberge, jeweler to the imperial court. On display are two of the 50 rare Easter eggs Faberge made for Russia’s imperial family. Reservations required. Reservation deposit $5 to $12. Call 202/686-5807 or 877/HILLWOOD, or visit www.hillwoodmuseum.org.

• Lessons with Anna Kueberth: This Baltimore pysanka artist teaches the craft to individuals or groups and will travel to students’ homes. Fee: Groups of two or three or more, $15 per person; Scout troops and other youth groups, $5 to $6 per person; church groups, about $10 per person. Contact her at 410/477-0351 or akueberth @comcast.net.

• The Northern Virginia Studio Eggers: Group meets at 10 a.m. the second Wednesday of the month at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 3022 Woodlawn Ave., Falls Church. Contact Margaret Plunkett, president, at 703/777-4819. The NVSE is a chapter of the International Egg Art Guild, which has its own Web site at www.eggartguild.org.

• The Ukrainian National Catholic Shrine of the Holy Family: 4250 Harewood Road NE. Gift shop open Sundays after Masses, usually 10:30-11:15 a.m. and 12:30-1:30 p.m. Offers do-it-yourself pysanka kits for a variety of skill levels. Also available: completed eggs imported from the Ukraine, a project of Hennie Deboeck([email protected]), who imports handicrafts made by women in developing countries and markets them at fairs and gift shops in the Washington area. Call the gift shop at 202/526-3737, or see www.ucns-holyfamily .org.

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