For some, Easter is the anticipation of new dress clothes and reflection on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For others it is about Easter bunnies delivering pastel colored baskets full of small trinkets and unhealthy amounts of sweet confections or solid milk chocolate cottontails. But for Theresa Mellor of Erda, it’s all about the eggs.
Mellor grew up in the Salt Lake Valley, but moved to Tooele County after learning about the relatively inexpensive housing and peace and quiet of country living. It was in Erda that Mellor, 44, was formally introduced to the art of the Ukrainian Easter egg, called Pysanka, or Pysanky if there is more than one. The word comes from the root pysaty, which means “to write.” The art form is believed to have been around even before the time of Christ.
At the age of 8, Mellor read a story about a young girl who made the eggs for Christmas. A few months after her initial discovery, the local library had an ornate Pysanky display. It wasn’t until years later that she was at a craft fair where a woman was decorating a Pysanka and the fascination was rekindled. She mentioned her interest to a neighbor who happened to have all the necessary tools to get started, so about three years ago, Mellor sat down and made her first Pysanka.
“[My neighbor] wouldn’t teach me. She brought over the kit and told me to have fun,” Mellor said.
The kit lent to Mellor, a child’s kit, contained a basic instruction booklet.
“Sometimes people see that the instruction book is for children and they’ll consider it too simple and look for something else, but I think for someone getting started, it is perfect,” she said. “There are colored illustrations and step-by-step directions so the first egg you make comes out beautifully.”
The beginner’s kit also included several basic dye colors, a kistka (beeswax filled writing tool), a cube of beeswax and an egg blowing tool. Though the dyes that are marketed in retail stores during the Easter season can be used, the colors will not be as true as those specifically designed for the creation of the Pysanky.
The end result looks labor intensive and intricate, but according to Mellor, it is about patience, following directions in order and realizing most people won’t notice the mistakes that you as the artist can identify. Though the eggs can be created on whole eggs, Mellor generally blows them out. She removes the yolk and the whites through a hole drilled at one end with a dremel tool — a smaller, handheld version of a drill. A pin hole has proved to be too small to allow for passage of the yolk.
“The kit comes with a blowing tool, which is nice because you only need to have one hole in the shell,” Mellor said. “I’ve also used baby mucus aspirators, or snot suckers as I call them. You can put holes at both ends of the egg, but it is more to cover up when the egg has been finished.”
It is important to use white eggs because eggs with a brown or olive shell can alter the intended color of the dye.
“In the past I’ve used chicken eggs and duck eggs,” Mellor said. “This year [my neighbor] gave me some goose eggs for my birthday. I’ve also seen pictures that people have done on ostrich eggs. Chicken eggs have a rougher surface than duck eggs and there is a smaller work area, but they are also easier to get so you don’t feel bad if you smash one. Duck eggs are slightly larger and have a smooth, porcelain finish to them. The chicken eggs seem to absorb the dyes better and have a brighter, truer final color to them. I’m excited to try the goose eggs because there is more room for design on them.”
One goose egg is equal to about three chicken eggs. The texture of the goose egg’s shell is smoother than a chicken egg, but not quite as sleek as a duck egg.
“Once the insides have been removed, I wash the egg inside and out with a water/vinegar rinse,” Mellor said. “It is about 50/50 and works to remove any oils. Aside from removing the grime, it almost etches the shell so that it will take the colors better. I let them dry for a few days to a week. It is important that the insides dry out because moisture inside can cause the shell to burst during the final heating process.”
Mellor said some people dye raw eggs and in some ways it is easier because they don’t float, but she’s been told that if they are put in a cold, dark spot, the inside will desiccate over time.
“I’d hate to have that in my house, especially if one got broken,” she said. “[My neighbor] had some that she kept in the top of her son’s closet. They mostly forgot about them until they noticed the smell.”
Often Mellor will find designs online and adapt them to her own purposes. Last year she created one for a neighbor that had white block letter Y’s incorporated into the blue design so that he could add the egg to his Brigham Young University shrine.
“I thought about putting a small, red U at the bottom, but that seemed mean, so I decided not to,” Mellor said.
The design is copied onto the egg in light pencil lines. Using the kistka and the beeswax, the hole made to extract the egg yolk and white is sealed in order to prevent the dye from leaking into the inside of the shell.
“After that it’s just a matter of thinking backward,” Mellor said. “Whatever is covered in wax before dying will be white. It is a wax resist process and you work backward, light to dark, like watercolor.”
After dying the shell the first color, yellow generally, the portions of the egg designed to be yellow are drawn on with the kistka and submersion in a dye of a second color follows. The process is repeated until the egg has the final coat of dye. At that point, all the wax is melted off the egg and wiped away to reveal the finished product.
“Mostly I just do what I like. Right now I’m going through a blue period, last year too,” Mellor said. “I find a design to work from and adapt it to my own taste or who it is for. I sketch it out on paper trying to find something that looks good. It changes as I go along. I write down the colors I’m going to use so I can determine the order before starting the egg.
Mellor said the first egg she made took her about two hours. Now, she can do the same design in about a half an hour.
“As you go along and practice your hand becomes steadier and you are able to think more clearly about the dying order,” she said. “I like to do it after my kids are in bed because I like to be able to concentrate. It’s relaxing once you get going, like meditation.”
Mellor said the eggs are a tradition of the Slavic countries. Her neighbor, who lent her the kit, is of Polish descent and insists that the eggs should be called Polish Easter eggs, but she has always referred to them as Ukrainian Easter eggs.
Though the process is often associated with Easter, Mellor has seen and even created eggs to be used as Christmas ornaments.
According to one site Mellor frequents, “Eggs symbolized the release of the earth from the shackles of winter and the coming of spring with its promise of new hope, new life and prosperity. With the advent of Christianity, Easter eggs symbolize the Resurrection and a promise of eternal life. Legend has it that as long as Pysanky are decorated, goodness will prevail over evil throughout the world.”
The designs created on the egg are often symbolic and though they range from wisdom, elegance and beauty to strength, wealth and prosperity in meaning, most symbols have to do with God, Christ and the trinity. The colors too often have meaning, but are secondary to the symbols.
“Since it is originally a religious art form, it is usually associated with Christ, rebirth, or prosperity, though I have seen some eggs done as decorations for Halloween,” Mellor said.
It is said to be good luck if you give a Pysanka away, according to Mellor.
“I often make the eggs to return to people who give me eggs or I keep a basket of them at my house and give one to anyone who comes by this time of year,” she said. “I use them to decorate during Easter and at Christmas.”
Mellor said her brother is getting married and she will be making one as a wedding gift, and a friend of hers made one for a granddaughter when she was born.
“To me they’re beautiful,” Mellor said. “It’s a beautiful art form. When you take off that last layer of wax it’s stunning. It’s this little jewel you’ve created.”