She creates pysanky in memory of her mom

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Ginette Simpson's works of art are cherished far and wide, especially around the Easter holiday.

And while Mrs. Simpson said she is humbled by the popularity of her work, she gets the most satisfaction from knowing that each and every one of her pieces is made in memory of her late mother and that proceeds from those she sells benefit her beloved parish, Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church, in New Alexandria.

"Each one brings me closer to God and closer to my mother," said Mrs. Simpson, following a demonstration Saturday of the art of pysanky, or Easter egg, decorating at Jeannette Public Library.

A pysanka is an Easter egg decorated with traditional Ukrainian folk designs using what is called a wax-resist method. The word pysanka means "to write" and refers to the fact that the designs are not painted on the egg but written with beeswax.

Mrs. Simpson learned the art nearly 50 years ago from her mother, Stella Nalevanko. Mrs. Nalevanko learned it from her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine at the turn of the 20th century.

Traditionally, the decorated eggs are given as gifts. Mrs. Simpson sells the pysanky to benefit the tiny Ukrainian church, where her family has always been part of the small but dedicated congregation.

Built around 1907, the church was once a thriving parish consisting of Eastern European immigrants who came to the area to work in the mines. Today, the church has fewer than 100 members. It is a mission of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church in Latrobe, part of the Ukrainiana Catholic Eparchy (Diocese) of St. Josaphat in Parma, Ohio.

Since she was very young, Mrs. Simpson and her mother would decorate the eggs for friends and family. The mother-daughter team also would hold demonstrations on the art, often using wax from leftover church candles.

In 2001, Mrs. Nalevanko died of cancer, leaving her daughter so overcome with grief that she said she no longer could bear to decorate an egg or conduct a public demonstration.

Four years later, however, Mrs. Simpson said she decided to return to her roots and share the art with others while raising funds for the church.

She said she found the strength to continue by hiding a heart in the decoration she places on each egg.

"This is my legacy," she explained.

Creating pysanky begins with a clean, uncooked egg. Some artists leave the insides intact to dry out, while others poke each end of the egg with a sharp pin to break the yolk and then blow out the contents.

Mrs. Simpson decorates the eggs first so that they sink in the dye and empties them later.

"Each one gets two 'Hail Marys' and a kiss before I blow them out," she said, laughing.

Mrs. Simpson pencils her decoration onto the egg. Symbols on the egg have specific meanings: a rose means beauty and wisdom, a spiral symbolizes immortality and wheat represents a bountiful harvest.

The eggs are then dipped repeatedly into special dyes, with the lightest colors first. Wax is applied in stages to preserve specific areas of color. Mrs. Simpson applies the wax with an electric stylus, although she explained that her ancestors would use only a sharp, metal, pen-like tool.

"They used to hide shoes from my grandfather, because he would steal the metal tips from the shoelaces to use on his eggs," she said.

When the egg is finished, Mrs. Simpson reheats the wax on the egg over a candle and rubs it off, exposing the intricate, colorful design underneath.

"Not one is ever the same," she said. "They still take my breath away."

According to Mrs. Simpson, it can take her anywhere from a couple of hours to 10 or 12 hours to finish one egg, depending on the intricacy of the design.

"At times, I find my shoulders burning, my hands go numb," she said. "I'm mentally and physically exhausted afterwards."

She sells her eggs for $20 to $100, and she said the holiday proves to be an essential fundraiser for the church.

"I don't mind," she said. "It's all for a good cause while it reminds me of my mom."


Linda Metz, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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