Eggs-ploring their heritage Headingley woman’s handmade Ukrainian Easter art works have taken on additional significance
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Pysanky for Ukraine Day, an annual event that fell on April 1, invited people from all walks of life to create pysanky — colourfully painted eggs adorned with traditional Ukrainian symbols and patterns — to show their support for the Eastern European nation.
Tracy Rossier, a Headingley-based artist who operates an Etsy shop dubbed Pysanky by Tracy, took part again this year, and noticed a higher number of registrants than usual posting photos or TikTok videos of their finished products, owing, no doubt, to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
Not only that, more people in general seem to be exploring their Ukrainian heritage because of the Russian invasion, she says, seated in a Portage Avenue coffee shop, where other customers peek over to admire an assortment of eggs dyed pink, yellow, orange and blue that she brought along for show-and-tell purposes.
“The weeks leading up to Easter have always been a busy time for me but lately it’s been especially go, go, go,” she continues, politely correcting our pronunciation — “It’s pih-sahn-kah” — when we utter “pie-san-kee” in error.
“It’s always nice to get newcomers to the (online) store; I just wish it was for an entirely different reason, is all.”
Rossier, whose maternal grandfather was Ukrainian, made her first pysanka 35 years ago at age six, when she and her sister signed up for an egg-painting class held at St. Vital Library, close to where they lived. It was a two-hour session during which they were taught the history of so-called Ukrainian Easter eggs ahead of being handed the necessary tools — hot-wax pens called kistkas — along with multiple jars of dye.
Her egg turned out fabulously, she recalls, other than dropping it on the floor 20 minutes before class was due to end, which left her scrambling to produce a second specimen to take home.
She kept at it as she got older, often making pysanky for family members as gifts. In 2010 she was a featured vendor at Folklorama’s Ukraine-Kyiv pavilion and two years later, after a friend asked if she was familiar with Etsy, she opened a virtual store of her own, wholly devoted to the art form.
She’s laughing when she says her original photos were “horrendous” and her self-composed bio wasn’t much better, but she enjoyed close to a dozen sales during her first couple of months in business, enabling her to buy more supplies.
Rossier doesn’t pigeonhole herself by turning out similar-looking eggs again and again. First of all, she doesn’t plan ahead by sketching designs on paper, the way some of her counterparts do. She definitely has a pattern in mind when she begins — flowers one day, a checkerboard design the next — but by the time an egg is nearing completion, it rarely looks like what she initially envisioned, she admits.
She isn’t particular about size, either. Besides conventional chicken eggs — she prefers farm-fresh canvases, finding they have tougher shells than what’s available in grocery stores — she also dyes turkey, emu and ostrich eggs, the latter of which can take her as many as 100 hours to complete. (“Don’t ask,” she says, when questioned what her hourly rate of pay would work out to, in a situation such as that.)
And while pysanky are most closely associated with Easter, she turns out Christmas-themed eggs, as well as custom orders for special events. Not long ago, she made a pysanka for a pair of newlyweds, and included shades of yellow, green and red, meant to portray hopefulness and the joy of life. Following that, she crafted an egg for someone battling cancer. For that one she incorporated images of pine trees and pine-tree boughs, Ukrainian symbols of strength and determination.
“I thought I would but no, that hasn’t turned out to be the case,” she replies, when asked whether she ever has seller’s remorse, considering every last pysanka is one-of-a-kind. “I enjoy thinking about them being prominently displayed in somebody else’s home, and I absolutely love getting feedback about how seeing my eggs made a person think about a family member who used to paint eggs, too.”
To date, Rossier has shipped pysanky to people in 19 U.S. states and every Canadian province and territory save Prince Edward Island and Nunavut. It wasn’t as if she had to ramp up production at the onset of COVID — unlike bleach and toilet paper, pysanky wasn’t a hot commodity, all of a sudden — but she did find herself spending more time in her four-season-porch-as-studio than she customarily did, simply as a way to take her mind off the pandemic.
“I manage a retail outlet full time, and because we were considered an essential service, there was no working from home or anything like that for me,” she says, noting she often gets so lost in her work that her husband will poke his head through the door to let her know supper’s been on the table for a few hours.
“After working all day when so many others were in full lockdown, doing my eggs gave me the peace and relaxation I so badly needed. There were probably days when I was making them more for me than as something to sell.”
Besides her online store, Rossier’s pysanky are also occasionally available at Kalyna Ukrainian Book Shop, 952 Main St. She has conducted a few workshops through the years — pre-COVID she was regularly invited to Lac du Bonnet’s Fire and Water Music Festival — and would love to get back to doing something similar in the near future.
In the meantime, she has a couple of ready-and-willing students to share her expertise with.
“I have two nieces, nine and 11, and any time we get together it’s craft-time with auntie,” she says, beaming. “We all decided that this is the year they’re going to make eggs. You need to be old enough to concentrate for a while, I told them, and both feel they’re ready to give it a go.”
There is an added bonus to her vocation: because she makes a point of draining her eggs before applying dye — not everybody does, some leave the innards intact or hard-boil their eggs first — her husband Paul is on the receiving end of as many quiches, omelets and bennies as he can handle, she says.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
Mike Deal started freelancing for the Winnipeg Free Press in 1997. Three years later, he landed a part-time job as a night photo desk editor.