If it ain’t broke, BREAK IT
Local artist transforms painstakingly painted pysanky shells into meticulously made mosaics
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/04/2009 (4864 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put a broken egg together again.
But a Winnipegger has perfected a way to recycle fragments of intricately decorated Ukrainian Easter eggs into lasting artworks.
"I’m the only one in the world that’s doing this," says Dave Wasylyshen, who painstakingly pieces together mosaics out of the colourful eggshells, then coats the finished works with clear plastic resin.
"Over the years, eggs will fade in colour, or they crack and break," says the Rivergrove resident, who works for the federal government as director of the China-Canada agriculture development program. "The mosaic is a new contemporary form of Ukrainian art, preserving that ancient cultural thing."
Each framed mosaic includes at least one embedded half-egg, giving the works a striking three-dimensional quality. No two are alike.
The part-time artist says most people who see the mosaics are amazed to hear that they’re crafted out of real chicken, duck, goose, quail or ostrich eggs, and that a big guy with beefy hands can do such delicate work.
The deep-voiced Wasylyshen, 50, is one of many Manitobans of Ukrainian heritage who are celebrating Easter today. He grew up in Garden City with Ukrainian-speaking parents. He married a fellow Ukrainian-Canadian.
"We’re all purebred," he says with a laugh.
His mother, Evelyn, had a talent for "writing" beautiful pysanky — Easter eggs — when he was growing up. His artistic father, Ted, became obsessed with devising a way to display the keepsakes other than the "giant cognac glass" found in most Ukrainian-Canadian homes.
In 1993, Ted started cutting up eggs and making collages from them, but "his process took thousands of hours," says his son. He completed only about five of the works. Before Ted died in 1995, he taught his technique to Dave.
Dave has completed 45 to 50 of the mosaics and taught his mother to make them. These days, they often work together in her basement workshop.
Traditionally, Ukrainian women kept their egg-dyeing formulas and decorating techniques a closely guarded secret, passed down from mother to daughter.
Wasylyshen is similarly secretive. He has invested a lot of research and development, he says, into perfecting his process and making it somewhat less labour-intensive than his dad’s.
First, he cuts the eggs into pieces, usually with a hand saw. Eggs that are too brittle can instantly shatter. "You can imagine, there’s wastage," he says. "I’m lucky to get 75 per cent of an egg."
Next, he soaks the pieces in a special solution that softens them so they can be mounted, and helps lock in the vibrant colour. "That’s the trade secret," he says.
Finally, he sits with the shards spread out on a table, like puzzle pieces, and slowly, intuitively glues them to a board. He often re-fashions the bands or ribbons that encircle the eggs into borders, crosses or other patterns.
"There’s no plan; no diagram," he says. "You’re sitting there with 1,000 pieces in front of you."
It takes roughly 15 to 25 eggs and many hours to create a mosaic 18 centimetres square.
Years ago, pysanky were often left whole when they were decorated. Later, it became more common to prick two holes at the egg’s ends and blow the yolk and white out. Today, a hypodermic needle is often used to suck the contents out.
Gases can build up inside eggs that were left whole. Most Ukrainian families have had the experience of hearing a loud bang followed by a foul smell, and discovering that a pysanka has exploded.
Mostly, Wasylyshen buys his eggs for $10 to $25 each from older Winnipeg women; he worries that not enough younger people are perfecting the technique.
"It’s becoming, in a way, a lost art. The supply is becoming limited, especially on the high-quality eggs."
The most ancient style of pysanky uses only rusty brown, black and white and has meandering designs. Those are called Trypillian eggs, and Wasylyshen has to buy them from Ukrainian farm women in Saskatchewan. "There’s nobody here in Manitoba who makes a nice Trypillian egg."
Purely through word of mouth, Wasylyshen has sold mosaics, starting at $150, to buyers in nearly every Canadian province, several U.S. cities, and Japan and Hong Kong. Ashton Gallery on Main Street carries a few of the mosaics.
He has made larger commissioned mosaics, priced at several thousand dollars, for oil companies in Calgary.
According to Ukrainian folklore, broken pysanky had to be disposed of carefully, because witches could use the pieces to do evil. The shells were supposed to be ground up and fed to chickens, or broken into pieces and thrown into a stream.
Regardless of such superstition, no one has ever objected to Wasylyshen’s recycled egg art. On the contrary, he says, they think he’s a good egg.
"And now I’m having people saying, ‘Can I give you my eggs to make into a mosaic?’ They see this as a very nice way (to preserve) an heirloom."
Dave Wasylyshen can be contacted at email@example.com
The Ukrainian word for Easter eggs, pysanky, comes from the verb "to write." Designs are not painted onto the raw eggs, but are "written" on with a stylus.
The art is believed to date back to ancient times of nature worship. Decorated eggs were used in spring rituals to represent rebirth. Pysanky were believed to ward off evil spirits, guarantee the harvest and bring good luck. Spiral or wavy designs were the most powerful because they trapped demons. After 988, when Christianity became the religion of Ukraine, the symbolism came to represent Christ’s resurrection.
To make a pysanka, molten beeswax is "written" onto the bare egg. Any area covered with wax remains white. The egg is dipped into the first dye (usually the lightest colour), then more wax lines or designs are applied. As the egg is dipped in progressively darker colours, areas covered with wax retain the previous color. After the final color, the egg is held near a flame or put in an oven to melt off the wax.
Traditionally, the eggs would be taken to church on Easter Sunday to be blessed. Every member of the family would receive an egg.
Every motif carries symbolic meaning. The most common include triangles, diamonds, waves, curls, spirals and dots; bands and ribbons symbolizing eternity; crosses; flowers and plants such as wheat; agricultural symbols such as the ladder; birds and fish; and the sun and eight-sided star.
Immigrants brought the pysanka tradition to Canada, helping to preserve it. In Ukraine, it was banned as a religious practice by the Soviet regime. Since Ukrainian independence in 1991, there has been a resurgence of the art there.