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Easter eggs of a different kind

Posted: April 6, 2009 1:11 a.m.
Updated: April 6, 2009 4:55 a.m.

An electric gun dispenses wax onto the egg before color dying. Pysanky is a traditional Ukrainian technique where eggs are decorated with intricate patterns etched in layers of dyes and wax and given to friends and family on Easter.

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Every Easter, Olga Kaczmar puts all her eggs in one basket.

These are no ordinary eggs, however. They are works of art decorated in a traditional Ukrainian technique known as pysanky, where intricate patterns are etched in layers of dyes and wax and given to friends and family on Easter.

When expertly done, the colorful, prism-like effects on the finished product can often be as dazzling as a Faberge egg.

"Artists and crafty people really want to try pysanky when they see it," Kaczmar said. "They really take to it. If you're an artist, it's just one more creative expression."

Kaczmar, who has taught the ancient art at University of California Los Angeles and Newhall's St. Stephens Episcopal Church, recently brought her wares to her regular Monday painting class at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center. Students had spied the festive eggs at a previous class and wanted to learn more.

"I've never done this before, but I remember, as a child, that a family that lived across the way from us were from Slovakia," said Jo Molano, a student at the Senior Center. "They brought us a pysanky one Easter and carried it over like a prize. I was fascinated by it."

Molano quickly found out that admiring pysanky is easy, but creating it ... not so much.

The intensive process starts with selecting farm-fresh eggs, as, according to Kaczmar, the surface on commercial eggs are washed with products that prohibit the wax from adhering.

They are then brought to room temperature before the next step, which involves dipping the egg in a series of liquids, starting with white wax and ending in black dye, before etching with a stylus or pinhead.

When finished with all patterns and bath dyes, pysanky are patted dry and allow to air dry completely before finishing in a 250° oven for final wax removal after it begins to shine.

"You just need a steady hand and patience," Kaczmar said.

Experience doesn't hurt, either. Unlike her fellow students, who struggled with the technique, Kathy Cory's yellow and blue geometric egg was beginning to take beautiful shape in the early stages of the process.

Cory's been practicing pysanky since she was a little girl, taught by her Austrian mother.

"My mom would be at the stove for hours, she loved it. It was a ritual," Cory said. "I did it for many years with my own sons, who would dye the eggs while I decorated them."

Originally associated with the mythical and religious beliefs of pagan times, pysanky took on new meaning with the coming of Christianity, evolving to represent the meaning of rebirth and life.

Pysanky designs can range from geometric patterns to freestyle drawings that incorporate a number of symbolic items: Ribbons or belts (endless line of eternity), fish (Christianity), sun (good fortune), leaves and flowers (life and growth), pine needles (youth and health), and wheat (wealth and prosperity).

Custom dictates that a fresh batch of pysanky be made annually, though Kaczmar has varnished and kept some of hers for many years in a treasured spot in her credenza or on display.

Despite her best efforts, some of Kaczmar's pysanky met with unfortunate ends.

"I had a friend's child in the house and they went to the basket I had out and broke every one of them," Kaczmar said.

Since Kaczmar estimated she's made hundreds, if not thousands, of eggs over the years, she still has quite a few in her
possession, including some large goose eggs fresh from a friend's farm.

Tiny pin prick holes are evident at both ends of her pysanky, from blowing out the egg's contents after the design is complete.

It's a delicate procedure, which recently got a little easier with the invention of the Blas Fix, a tiny, one-hole blower that extracts the yolk with water pressure. Kaczmar demonstrated the Blas Fix as her students looked on, impressed.

"It's like making wine, you never appreciate the process until you try it yourself," Molano said. "This might require more talent than I have."

"You just have to throw the bad ones out and keep practicing," Kaczmar said.

For more information on pysanky, visit Kaczmar's Web site at www.dpcamps.org/pysanky.html. To join the pysanky class at the SCV Senior Center, call (661) 259-9444.

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