Steeped in ancient symbolism and decorated in hot wax, pysanky (pronounced pie-sun-key) is a colorful folk art tradition in Ukraine that harkens back to pagan times.
These days, the ancient tradition is celebrated at Easter, when Ukrainian churches and community groups gather to decorate eggs in intricate, painstaking detail.
Decorating eggs is more than just a pastime for those who lived in Ukraine when it was under the control of the Soviet Union, from 1922 to 1991. For them, it's a symbol of expressive freedom.
"This was one of the few traditions in the Soviet era that we were able to keep, so it's important to us," said Hanna Dziamko, a Mt. Lebanon pharmacist and native Ukrainian who came to the U.S. in 1997.
Every year, Ms. Dziamko teaches the pysanky tradition with her sister, Svetlana Tomson, who emigrated to the U.S. after perestroika in late 1989. The family, including mom Maria Dziamko -- who came to the U.S. in 1996 -- hails from the Zakarpatya region in western Ukraine.
Ms. Tomson remembers arriving at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on the day after Thanksgiving. She lived for a time in New Jersey but moved to Pittsburgh because it reminded her of the Zakarpatya region, with rolling hills and greenery.
She married the Rev. Tim Tomson, of St. Mary Ukrainian Orthodox Church in McKees Rocks, and together, the family teaches their children -- and the community -- about the ancient Ukrainian traditions.
"You have to know where you are and where you come from," Father Tomson said during a recent egg-decorating workshop at the church. "That's the great thing about America, we keep our ethnic traditions alive. And it gets more important as you get older."
Ms. Tomson and her sister founded the Ukrainian Community of Western Pennsylvania, which sponsors the egg-decorating workshops and other programs aimed at preserving Ukrainian tradition.
Val Ivanova, a cardiologist from Wexford, brought her husband Tariq Cheema and 8-year-old daughter Milla Ivanova to the workshop.
"I did this when I was little with my grandmother," said Ms. Ivanova, who came to the U.S. 12 years ago from Ukraine.
A third-grader at Marshall Elementary School in the North Allegheny School District, Milla said she loves learning about the traditions and coloring the eggs. She gave some of her egg art to her great-grandmother on a recent trip to Ukraine.
"It's always fun," Ms. Ivanova said. "We always did it before Easter."
"I like it!" Milla agreed.
But you don't have to be from Ukraine to appreciate the art of pysanky.
Bethaney Krzys and her husband Jerry Krzys drove to the church from Youngstown, Ohio, to participate in the workshop.
"I remember these eggs when I was little," said Ms. Krzys, who is part Ukrainian.
"I'm just the good husband," Mr. Krzys said.
Terry Maddox of Ross and her granddaughters Madison Dalton, 14, and Kennedy Dalton, 6, aren't Ukrainian, but they appreciate the folk art designs and beauty of the fragile eggs.
"Pittsburgh is unique with all the ethnic communities," Ms. Maddox said. "I think a lot of this gets lost over the years."
But why create such priceless designs on such a delicate canvas? Historians think they have the answer.
The egg as life
In their attempt to understand creation, "ancient people developed myths in which the egg was perceived as the source of life, the sun and the universe," according to the Web site of The Ukrainian Museum in New York City.
"The Ukrainian pysanka (from the word pysaty, to write) was believed to possess an enormous power not only in the egg itself, which harbored the nucleus of life, but also in the symbolic designs and colors which were drawn upon the egg in a specific manner, according to prescribed rituals," according to the website. "The intricately colored eggs were used for various social and religious occasions and were considered to be a talisman, a protector against evil, as well as harbingers of good."
At another Ukrainian egg workshop this month in Peters, artist and Peters police Capt. Michael Yanchak taught approximately 14 participants about the traditions surrounding the Easter eggs.
Growing up in a Ukrainian household, Capt. Yanchak learned the tradition from his father, also named Michael Yanchak, and from his grandfather, Wasyl Yanchak, who came to the U.S. with many other Ukrainian immigrants in the early 1900s.
Capt. Yanchak remembers his father going to great lengths to decorate the eggs every Easter, leaning against a gas stove in the kitchen and using melted crayons to sketch the rudimentary designs.
"The old Eastern European church tradition at Easter is to take a basket of food and get it blessed," Capt. Yanchak recalled. "In the basket would be everything you would eat on Easter morning, including the eggs. My dad would not allow anything that wasn't perfect into the basket."
The eggs are raw when decorated, although during the Great Depression, the eggs often were hard boiled so that they weren't wasted, Capt. Yanchak said. Dyes were made from ordinary household items, such as onion skins and beets.
A special stylus called a "kistka" is used to sketch designs in melted wax, and then the eggs are alternately dipped in various dyes and further sketched with intricate details that feature symbols, such as crosses, flowers and stars. The hardened wax prevents the color from seeping, and when the wax is melted off the finished product, the colors stand out vividly.
When sketching with hot wax, breath control is important, Capt. Yanchak said, and caffeine should be avoided to keep hands as steady as possible.
When decorated raw, the eggs eventually will dry out. They will keep for decades as long as they are in a well-ventilated area and rotated every six months or so. If varnish is used on the shell, the insides of the egg must blown out through a hole or it will explode.
Capt. Yanchak said it took him four years of practicing his stovetop decorating before his eggs were deemed good enough to make it into his father's blessed basket.
Benon Brewer, 14, of Peters, came to the workshop with mom Nicki Vance and said he was pleasantly surprised.
"The egg thing is fun," he said. "It's definitely not what I expected."
The eighth-grader at Peters Middle School rejected Capt. Yanchak's suggested ancient designs and instead decorated his egg with the insignia of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team.
"I think I'm going to put it in my room," he said.
"I love doing the heritage things and doing the things my ancestors used to do," Ms. Vance said.
Part of the fun is decorating the eggs according to individual style.
That was true for Vija Severin of Peters, who brought her husband Bob to the workshop. Of Latvian descent, Ms. Severin had been used to dying eggs with onion skins in a slightly different technique favored by her ancestors.
"It's a different experience," Mr. Severin said.
"It's nice to do things together," she said.
And, it's important to keep ethnic traditions alive, Ms. Tomson said.
"For me, it's very important that my children know where we come from," she said. "Our Ukrainian history is rich. It's important for us to promote our culture here."
Ukrainian Community of Western Pennsylvania will hold another egg-decorating workshop from 8 to 11 a.m. April 13 at Panera Bread in the Galleria of Mt. Lebanon. The cost is $45, which includes breakfast. Rregistration is required by April 7. To-register: www.ucowpa.com or 412-364-0968.
To learn more about St. Mary Ukrainian Orthodox Church and upcoming events, including the annual Ukrainian Festival Aug. 28-31: bit.ly/ukiefestrocks or 412-331-2362.
Janice Crompton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-851-1867. First Published March 28, 2013 4:00 AM