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Pysanky for the Future
Kosa Kolektiv herald tiny dyed eggs as a lasting emblem of Ukrainian resilience

“With my Baba, we used elastics to get straight lines.”

A woman beside me is explaining her grandmother’s egg-decorating technique. I gawk in disbelief at the perfectly aligned geometric patterns on the Pysanky in front of me.  These delicately dyed eggs of Ukrainian folklore have persisted through years of Christian re-branding and Soviet repression, crossing an ocean to end up in downtown Toronto.

At the St. Vladimir Institute last Saturday afternoon, the Kosa Kolektiv met to lead a workshop in decorating Pysanky: beautiful wax-relief Ukrainian Easter eggs. The unassuming eggs have been a lasting emblem of Ukrainian resilience, potent symbols within Pagan and Christian traditions.

Photo by Stephanie Turenko

Marichka Galadza, Oksana Hawrylak and Stephanie Turenko (founders of the Kosa Kolektiv) have assembled multiple jars of dye with spoons, pieces of paper towel, cartons of raw eggs, candlesticks, globs of beeswax and tiny wooden kistka; styluses used to draw on the eggs. All proceeds from the workshops go to fund the Pysanka Orphanage in Potelech, Ukraine.

Our first step is to wash the grime from our hands. Any greasiness will leave a design that we didn’t intend for. 

Galadza explains how the different regions in Ukraine have their own styles and insignias on the eggs. The mountainous region produces more detailed and geometric eggs, the central region’s are flowery and organic.

“If you divide your egg,” explains Galadza, “it gives you a good spatial sense.” It is exceedingly difficult to freehand straight lines on a curved surface. Hawrylak demonstrates lightly drawing in pencil lines on her egg.

“If it breaks,” she says, “don’t worry, it’s good luck.”

The ornate eggs are ultimately a re-interpretation of pagan traditions extending back thousands of years. They are dipped in a mix of water and vinegar, wiped clean, then sketched on lightly with pencil. A kistka (literally ‘bone’) is used to apply the wax. It is a stylus containing a tiny funnel bound with wire on the end of a stick. The funnel is stuffed with real beeswax and heated over an open candle flame.

The portions covered in wax will remain white (or brown, depending on the initial color of the egg). They are then dyed – lightest to darkest. Each subsequent layer must be covered with new wax to preserve the separate colors.

Photo by Stephanie Turenko

The finished product is held to the candle flame until the wax glistens, then wiped off. It is advisable to blow the eggs (hollowing them through a tiny hole bored through the egg’s ends). If you don’t, “sometimes they’ll explode after like, a decade,” laughs Turenko. The whole process is slow and laborious, but the finished result (if you’ve a steady hand) is incredible. If you’re me, not so much.

The Kosa Kolektiv was, in many ways, unified by these eggs. “A big catalyst for the collective forming, and actually having a vision, was the process of coming together for the pysanka projekt, organizing the workshops and then running the fundraising program,” says Bozena Hrycyna, the fourth founding member. “I was inspired to raise money for the orphanage because I visited it while living and working in Lviv, Ukraine.”

The four wanted to meet to sing and make traditional crafts; essentially keeping their history alive. While some traditions (like pysanka making) were passed on by their parents and community, others required some investigation. “We have done lots of ethnographic research from secondary sources and done some primary research with village women in Ukraine, in addition to sharing with others in the ‘urban folk revival’ movement around the world,” says Hrycyna. “I’d say, we’ve actually connected a lot with people over the Internet, checking out other groups’ websites, videos and photos and sharing information this way. We’ve also connected with lots of people around us – who could teach us what we were interested in – but we previously had not been aware of them.”

Photo by Stephanie Turenko

Each egg is loaded with symbolism. The practice of egg decorating has existed in various derivations across Eastern Europe since prehistory. In the Ukraine, it was passed from mother to daughter for centuries. There are scores of interpretations of the pictures on the eggs. One legend describes a dragon that sits in his cave, monitoring the production of Pysanka. If there are not enough produced to his liking, he will incinerate the world. “So,” says Galadza, “as long as you make it [pysanka], the world’s not gonna end.” Other legends dictate necessary decorative details: If the ends of your egg are bald, YOU will go bald.

“We enjoy sharing in the joy and beauty of these traditions,” says Hrycyna. “They become meaningful when shared and celebrated with others. They bring people together to slow down, enjoy the simple things around us, experience joy in song and food. The most rewarding thing has been building a community of amazingly artistic and hard working and good people.”

Kosa Kolektiv has a number of upcoming pysanky workshops for kids and adults. Register here.


Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator for the Toronto Standard.  Follow her on Twitter at @tiffyjthompson. 

For more, follow us on Twitter at @TorontoStandard and subscribe to our newsletter.

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