These Easter eggs have a story to tell. Six pysanky artists write a message of hope to Ukraine
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/04/2022 (236 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As war rages in Ukraine, the ancient springtime tradition of decorating elaborate Easter eggs has taken on a different meaning this year — one tinged with sadness and fear.
But it has also inspired Ukrainian Canadian artists to send a message of hope and support to people in their homeland.
“The best response to suffering and inhumanity for me is to make something beautiful,” said Dave Melnychuk, an artist who lives in Oshawa.
This art form, called pysanky (plural for pysanka) is derived from the verb “pysaty,” which means “to write.” The eggs are a demonstration of patience and care, upon which intricate designs are written, not painted. Every symbol, design and colour on a pysanka bears traditional meaning and significance and often includes a hope or wish for the future. According to an ancient legend, decorating Ukrainian Easter eggs is meant to ward off evil. The more pysanky created, the less likely evil is to prevail.
The Star asked six members of the local Ukrainian community to write pysanky, which reflect their hopes, fears and wishes in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“When you write pysanky you imbue all of your good hopes and wishes and intentions,” said artist Tetyana Vodoviz, who was born in Ukraine and now lives in Waterloo.
Delicate lines and shapes are composed on the egg with wax using a stylus-like tool called a kistka. The egg is then soaked in dye, with the wax preventing the dye from covering the designs and symbols. This process is repeated with additional layers of wax and gradually darker colours. When the layers are complete, the egg is held to a flame to melt off the wax, revealing a detailed pysanka.
During this Easter season, and as Orthodox Easter approaches on April 24, the exercise can be an emotional experience, with thoughts turning to the suffering in Ukraine. According to the United Nations, more than 10 million refugees have been forced from their homes since the war began on Feb. 24.
In Canada, some 1.4 million residents identify as being of Ukrainian descent, the largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world after Russia.
Common threads weave through each artist’s pysanka, including similar uses of colour. Red is traditionally used for passion, hope and blood, white for innocence and purity, green for rebirth and black for eternity and for Ukraine’s soil, which is fertile, and because of its production of wheat, has earned the country the reputation of being the breadbasket of the world.
A traditional netting design, also known as a sieve symbol, features in many of the pysanky and symbolizes protection and the division of good and evil. Meandering triangles, known as wolf’s teeth, are also repeated throughout the eggs, signifying fierce protection.
For many of the artists, writing the pysanka allowed them to express and send their messages of hope and prayers that Ukraine will prevail.
“This year I wish for peace, for the triumph of good over evil and the hope to be whole again,” Vodoviz said.
Tanya Mykytiuk: Symbol of resistance
The message of Tanya Mykytiuk’s pysanka, divided into 30 diamonds, is one of protection, hope, strength, love and mourning.
The dominant motif is the red kalyna berry, a national symbol. Mykytiuk was inspired by a song “Oi u Luzi Chervona Kalyna,” which has become the unofficial anthem of resistance throughout the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The lyrics call on people to elevate the kalyna because it represents the nation’s soul.
The eight-pointed star is a traditional symbol and an interpretation of the sun, the giver of life. White stars radiate peace, hope and energy. Two rows of kalyna clusters flank the stars — in one row the kalyna droops, in the other it stands erect and proud.
At either end of the egg are grey nets, a protection from evil. Mykytiuk said the nets also came from her thoughts about the school in Ukraine where her cousin teaches and where kids now gather to make camouflage nets to cover army tanks.
Mykytiuk, who lives in Mimico, is a second-generation Canadian and has been writing pysanky for over 40 years.
Halia Palaszczuk: ‘Glory to Ukraine’
Halia Palaszczuk’s pysanka is written on an ostrich egg, dubbed “Glory to Ukraine.” The designs are traditional, dating back centuries and are written for love, hope, protection and prosperity in Ukraine.
The tree of life is depicted in the centre as stems of wheat, symbolizing bountiful harvest. “Ukraine is the wheat basket of the world,” Palaszczuk said.
Around the wheat are meandering white triangles, known as wolf’s teeth, symbolizing fierce protection of the land. The wreath around the centre represents a talisman for blooming nature and wealth. Diamonds signify protection from all corners of the Earth. The cross holds two meanings: intersecting lines represent the sun or victory over darkness, as well as a cross of suffering and resurrection.
The poppy is a symbol to remember those who died in military service. The sieve, or netting, signifies the division of good and evil.
Palaszczuk, who lives in Brampton, learned to write pysanky at the age of three. Over 62 years, the art has become her passion and she currently teaches pysanky workshops.
Nadia Kowalyshyn: Courage and strength
Nadia Kowalyshyn’s pysanka was influenced by a video she saw of a pysanky artist who fled her hometown in Ukraine when the war broke out and only brought one colour of dye with her.
Similarly, Kowalyshyn’s pysanka uses one dye — red for hope and the blood that keeps us alive — which she said was a challenge. The lines are deliberately bold and wide to symbolize strength.
The egg has 40 triangles, representing the 40 days of lent, and has three sections: heaven on top, Earth in the centre and the underworld below. The top and bottom sections are lined with wolf’s teeth for protection.
The pysanka features the heraldic symbol of Ukraine, called a “tryzub,” representing the courage of Ukrainian people. A diamond holds the symbol of a poppy and another shows the arrows of Perun, a god of discipline and strength. Kowalyshyn left sections empty to signify the unknown and hope for the future.
Kowalyshyn is a retired teacher who lives in London. She also teaches pysanky workshops across Ontario including in Waterloo, Kitchener and London.
Layrssa Spolsky: Embroidered cloth
Laryssa Spolsky was inspired by the Ukrainian song “Dva Kolory,” meaning two colours. The song tells the story of a mother embroidering a cloth for her son, who then carries it throughout life, symbolizing the unknown fate of the child.
The primary symbol of the pysanka is embroidered cloth, called a “rushnyk,” which is traditionally made when a child is born and also used for special occasions like weddings or taken to war to accompany soldiers.
Diamonds are featured on the pysanka, which represent the sun and goodness. The three points of the triangles symbolize birth, life and death.
Spolsky chose to use minimal colour: white for purity and innocence; red for blood, passion and happiness; and black, which symbolizes the darkest time before the dawn as well as Ukranian soil.
Spolsky is first-generation Canadian living in Bloor West Village. She is a former architect and currently works at Koota Ooma, a Ukrainian store in Toronto.
Tetyana Vodoviz: Healing the earth
Tetyana Vodoviz’s pysanka depicts Ukraine, personified as a woman wearing a traditional Ukrainian blouse, stitching and healing the earth that has been damaged by war. The sun rises above the rolling hills and meadows during the spring, representing renewal and rebirth.
On the other side of the pysanka, a family is shown as whole, safe and surrounded by kalyna and sunflowers, which represent victory and triumph.
Traditional symbols of nets, dividing good and evil, and spirals for protection are also depicted.
Vodoviz used the colours blue and yellow for the Ukrainian flag and green for spring and rebirth. Through her pysanka she hopes for peace and for the country to be whole again.
Vodoviz was born in Ukraine and came to Canada with her family in 1997. She works as a health informatician at Grand River Hospital and lives in Waterloo.
Dave Melnychuk: A call to arms
Dave Melnychuk’s pysanka is written in the Carpathian style, depicting a traditional wooden church on one side and two deer standing on either side of the tree of life on the other.
The tree of life for Melnychuk represents the still point of the centre, “which doesn’t move while everything else moves around it.”
The motifs signify returning to traditional wisdom, the beauty and depth of Ukraine’s culture and human potential. Dividing the pysanka is a band which includes traditional stars and pine, representing eternity.
While Melnychuk wants to give the symbols room for interpretation, he said the deer looking towards the sun and moon could represent dual aspects of reality that are also complementary, a reminder that we are part of a larger world and the dangers of becoming too insular. The antlers could represent royalty as well as weapons, suggestive of a call to arms.
Melnychuk lives in Oshawa. His grandparents came to Canada from Ukraine in the early 20th century.
Ghada Alsharif is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach Ghada via email: email@example.com