ArtsOhio Blog

The ArtsOhio Blog is the Ohio Arts Council's way to share stories that highlight the arts in Ohio, feedback from the field, interviews with artists and staff, and more. Sign up for the ArtsOhio newsletter to receive a curated selection of posts each month.

A basket of pysanky eggs by Carol Snyder

Traditional Arts in Ohio: Seasonal Art and Family Folklife with Pysanky

A completed pysanky egg. Photo courtesy of Carol SnyderMany who observe the Easter holiday enjoy the tradition of dyeing and decorating eggs, but few are able to produce eggs as intricate as Carol Snyder’s of Columbus.

Snyder is a ceramic artist year-round, but every winter and spring she returns to her Ukrainian family tradition of decorating pysanky (pronounced pih-SANG-kee). Pysanky eggs are made, displayed, and shared almost exclusively during the Lenten season—the 40 days prior to the Easter holiday, as observed by several Christian denominations.

Decorating pysanky is generally understood to have begun in pre-Christian times in what is now Eastern Europe. Decorated eggs became sacred objects that were given as gifts to ensure well-being and were placed in homes or with livestock to protect them. Many of the symbols used to decorate sacred eggs were carried forward into the Christian era, with new meanings ascribed to align with a Christian worldview.

Ukrainian and other Eastern European immigrants brought the artform to the Americas, where it has thrived as a seasonal family tradition. Snyder’s grandparents on her father’s side immigrated to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and joined a Ukrainian Eastern Rite congregation there. Decorating pysanky is usually passed down by women in Ukrainian families, and Snyder’s grandmother, Anna, brought the tradition to their new home in the U.S.

It was Snyder’s father Charles (Swanick), however, who ended up carrying on the tradition from his mother.

“When Lent started, dad would always pull out all of the supplies and sit down at the dining room table and do pysanky,” she said. “It’s absolutely tradition every year, from the beginning of Lent until Easter, you just decorate eggs. And he kept the tradition. Usually it was in the evening, which obviously works best because he was working.”

Snyder said she sees a connection between her father’s occupation and his love of pysanky.

Snyder's father, Charles, in his Easter suit. Photo courtesy of Carol Snyder.“He’s an engineer,” she said. “So, I think that was very appealing to him, the design work and everything . . . He was so precise. It was almost scary, like, ‘leave him alone, he’s doing these eggs!’”

Snyder and her four siblings knew to be careful once the pysanky supplies came out.

“It was kind of that, ‘Don’t move the table. Don’t run around. Don’t jolt anything,’ because he’s working on his eggs,” she said.

Snyder does not remember ever decorating eggs with her father—she recalls just observing his annual return to the tradition. In doing so, she was absorbing the techniques and processes of the artform.

“I know we watched a lot,” she said. “And I was one of those kids that would just probably sit and stare. Just sit at the table quiet, and just watch him.”

However, as she grew older pysanky called to her.

“I started doing them—not during college or earlier years—it was more when I was married and had a family,” Snyder said.

As with her father, she sees a connection between her occupation and her stewardship of the tradition.

“I kind of picked up the torch, probably because I’m the artist of the family, so it was very intriguing to me,” she said. “When I got old enough, I thought, ‘You know what, it’s a beautiful tradition, I want to keep it going.’”

At that time, there was a shop in Columbus that sold pysanky materials—the dyes and kistkas, the special styluses that hold melted wax.

“So, every year I went and got wax and dyes and started doing it myself,” Snyder said. “And like anything, as you do it, you get better and better.”

The eggs that Snyder decorates look intricately painted, but their designs are actually made through a wax-resist process of inscribing and sequential dyeing, moving from lighter to darker colors. The process starts with drawing an initial design in pencil on a chicken egg. The pysanky artist then heats the kistka in a candle flame and scoops up some beeswax. They return the kistka to the flame and melt the beeswax, which flows out of the kistka like ink. The artist then uses the beeswax to draw on the undyed egg, just in the areas that they want to appear white in the final design.

Next, the artist dips the egg in the first color of dye—usually a light color like yellow. The dye absorbs quickly into the spaces that are not covered with wax, and the artist then moves onto the next inscribing step—drawing on the designs that they want to appear in yellow.

Once those designs are complete, the artist dips the egg again in the next-darkest dye—maybe orange or red. The process is repeated until the darkest color of dye has been used. There is no erasing or modification possible in the dying process, so pysanky artists must learn to live with their designs and take any lessons learned onto the next egg.

Once the dyeing process is complete, the pysanky artist melts off the wax inscriptions carefully, avoiding burning the egg. Snyder then seals her eggs with Minwax and sets them out to dry.

The pysanky egg decorating process. Photos courtesy of Carol Snyder.

Simple pysanky eggs can take an hour or so to decorate, but some of Snyder’s more intricated pieces take several days to complete. But this is part of the appeal for her.

“It’s really kind of nice to look forward to in the evening, to sit down and just have a quiet time, and just sit and do those,” she said. “It’s meditative. It kind of recenters you, you know? It’s really peaceful. So, it’s a good tradition to have and keep going.”

Snyder has hosted pysanky-decorating parties with friends. They’ve been fun, she said, even if the designs suffer a bit.

“It’s not like a quilting-bee kind of activity. In the past, pre-COVID, I would have friends over who aren’t at all Ukrainian, but they’re my artists friends. We would get together, everyone does an egg, has dinner, and drinks wine,” she said. “The eggs that get done aren’t very great, but we have a good time!”

Pysanky on display in Snyder's home during Lent. Photo courtesy of Carol Snyder.Snyder also described how important the seasonal aspect of pysanky has been to its continuation in her family.

“It just feels good to do around Easter time,” she said. “It’s just the thing to do.”

She added that her grown children don’t currently practice the tradition, but she imagines they might later with their own families.

“I'm hoping so,” she said. “Because it’s so ingrained in our Easter. It’s just something that is part of the household. My kids just grew up that way—all the dyes were out on the kitchen counter. That’s what we were doing in the evenings. I was working on an egg, and they could come and join or not. It’s just kind of what you see, almost like people who grew up with a Christmas tree in the house at Christmas every year. It’s kind of the same thing.”

On the topic of Christmas, Snyder mentioned that some pysanky artists have found success decorating and selling eggs at Christmas time.

“I had a friend who did them for shows,” she said. “She would do them professionally and do them as Christmas ornaments.”

That artist made great sales and had some collectors, Snyder said, but she did remark that something always felt off about the process.

“She said it just didn’t feel quite right,” Snyder said. “It’s like, ‘no, they’re for Easter.’”

Snyder has also tried decorating outside of the Easter season, but she quickly abandoned it.

“I can’t do them any other time than Easter,” she said. “I’ve tried and I just can’t; it just doesn’t feel right. So, hopefully that’s part of it—where it just is part of Easter, and it keeps going.”

The gift-giving aspect of this tradition also helps keep it alive.

Snyder paints eggs for her parents and for her Ukrainian friends every year, and there is some expectation that she will continue adding to their collections.

In her own home, Snyder displays her finished eggs in bowls of rice or oats to keep them safe, so that she, her family, and friends can enjoy them for years to come.

To learn more about decorating pysanky, check out this video from the Capital Ukrainian Festival in Ottawa: https://rebrand.ly/Pysanky-workshop

ABOUT THE OHIO ARTS COUNCIL
The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at oac.ohio.gov.

###

Article by Cristina Benedetti, Ohio Arts Council Folk and Traditional Arts Contractor
Featured photo: A basket of pysanky eggs. Photo courtesy of Carol Snyder.



Comments are closed.

Instagram

Sign Up for the Monthly Newsletter

From deadline reminders to artist interviews--sign up to receive the monthly ArtsOhio newsletter directly to your inbox.

*indicates required
Which audience do you identify with the most?

View previous campaigns.