Coreen Weilminster learned the art of pysanky as a teenager growing up in the coal region of Northeast Pennsylvania, an area known for its diverse European, Russian and Ukrainian immigrant settlements. The name pysanky is derived from the Ukrainian word for “to write,” and the term “writing” is commonly used to describe the dazzlingly intricate art of decorating Ukrainian Easter eggs.
“I have memories of watching my great aunts—who were first-generation Americans born to Carpathian-Rusyn immigrants from the Hutsul region of Slovakia bordering Ukraine—make pysanky,” she says. “They would add those eggs to a basket of food and pussy willows that would be blessed in a church service for Easter.”
Weilminster has been writing eggs for about 35 years and has been teaching the art of pysanky for about 10 years.
“I actually credit Baltimore with advancing my art,” she says. “About 12 years ago, I was invited to a pysanky party hosted by Paul and Gwyn Armstrong. They annually would open their home in Bolton Hill to friends of all ages and abilities to come make pysanky. It was there that I learned to let go of my fears around blowing out eggs after designing them and where I felt free to attempt bolder and less traditional color combinations.”
Through the parties, she says, “I felt that magic amplify and become accessible. So much of what I learned there informs how I teach my pysanky classes.”
The art of pysanky involves applying multilayered designs to the surface of the egg using hot beeswax and a stylus to trace the designs, then dipping the egg in dye baths. One egg could take anywhere from three to 11 hours to complete.
The art form has not changed much since it originated around 988 A.D., when Ukraine adopted Christianity. The eggs symbolize life, hope, happiness and protection. Every image on the surface of the egg holds a particular meaning—the star symbolizes the sun god; the fish, Jesus Christ, the fisherman; wheat, good health and wishes for a good harvest; deer, horses and rams, prosperity and so forth. The colors are also symbolic: white signifies purity and light; yellow, youth, harvest, joy, the sun and moon; green, spring; orange, endurance and strength; red, happiness, hope and passion; green, renewal, wealth and victory of life over death; blue, good health, truth and fidelity; pink, success; purple, trust and patience; and black, the darkest hour before the dawn and respect for the dead.
The designs and color combinations vary according to the region in which the eggs are created. Weilminster explains that black and white are reserved for mourning, while red and white represent respect and protection from evil powers. Four or more colors together in a design represent family happiness, peace and love.
“By writing on the egg—not words, still only symbols—the ancient people used the power of the egg to hold intentions,” Weilminster explains. She notes each symbol connects with a meaning or association with an outcome. “Straight lines that wrap around the egg are considered infinity lines and are written to intend protection. Pine bough represent strength and eternal life. The rosette means love and goodwill.”
Weilminster says she looks back to a myth from the Hutsul region as inspiration to keep teaching the art and making pysanky. “The moral of the story is that by continuing to write intentions on eggs, we save the world from evil and chaos. The legend is that as long as the custom continues, the world will exist. If abandoned, evil—in the form of a demon, dragon or horrible serpent who is forever chained to a cliff and cave—will loose his chains and unleash chaos and destruction. Each year, he sends his minions out to see how many psyanky have been created. The more we make, the tighter his chains become, and good triumphs over evil for another year.”
Another tradition holds that women would make psyanky at night after everyone in the house was sleeping. The eggs were—and remain—items for gifts, such as births, deaths and weddings. They’re also used in rituals. Weilminster offers the example of burying one beneath a beehive to ensure a bountiful honey harvest.
Fundraiser for the World Kitchen
Coreen Weilminster and friends have established a fundraiser to secure funds for World Central Kitchen, a group on the front lines of the Ukrainian invasion crisis that’s feeding those fleeing the hostility and fighting it. To date, these efforts have raised $1,500. To donate, visit https://tinyurl.com/WCK4Ukraine.