Pysanka: The Art of Writing

By Ken Johnston

In an age where the hand-written word is becoming less and less common, Jo-Anne Hagarty of Rainy River, has taken up a craft that involves very intricate hand-writing... the art of Pysanka.
Pysanka comes from the Ukrainian verb “pysaty” which means to write. However, this writing refers to a decorated egg created by the written-wax batik method utilizing traditional folk motifs and designs.
While Hagarty has no Ukrainian roots, a teacher she had in high school, about 20 years ago, did. “In ninth grade I had a teacher who taught us French, Gym and Art. She was Ukrainian and decided she wanted us to do something different for Easter that year.”
So the teacher brought in eggs, dyes, wax and Kistkas. Kistkas are the stylus used to write with melted wax on eggs.
Enjoying it in class, Hagarty and her sister acquired some Kistkas and continued doing Pysanka at home for a time. But as her teenage years became busier with other activities she lost interest.
It wasn’t until four or five years ago, she and her daughter Brin, were at a shopping mall and saw some of the beautifully decorated Pysanky. “I told Brin I had learned to do that and she asked if we could do it together.”
Every Easter Brin would recall the stunning eggs and ask mom again if they could do it. In early 2013 Brin’s pressure scored a victory. “I went on line to see what was available for order. At first I only ordered the more traditional Kistkas as I was not sure how into it we would be.”
A traditional Kistska holds a small amount of beeswax and has to be heated, used, heated and used. There are electric Kiskas available and this year Jo-Anne ordered herself one for her birthday.
Surprisingly both her daughter and her son, Seamus, got into the art, but it was Jo-Anne who really became hooked on it. Last year she did about five dozen eggs!
With it being nearly two decades since she had learned Pysanka, she knew she needed a refresher. In addition to the Kistkas and supplies, she ordered some books on the art.
It wasn’t long and she and the kids were churning out beautiful eggs with many colours and designs on them. “I first divide the egg into sections using a pencil. To me it is almost mathematical.” This process has to be carefully done as one can not use an eraser on the egg as it affects the way the egg and wax/dye interact.
She and the kids began using chicken eggs from the store. She learned that the smoother the eggs the better, so if you see her in the grocery store taking her time inspecting eggs carton by carton, there is a reason for her doing so!
Since then she found a link to a place where she can buy exotic eggs. But she is nervous about working on more expensive eggs so turned to locals for donated eggs. RR Nurse Practitioner Nicole Therrien supplied her with duck and goose eggs. This allowed her to learn a great deal as different types of eggs have different characteristics and require a little different thinking. “If they are a different colour, like a brown chicken egg, it will look different when coloured.”
Once the egg is divided into sections she then covers up the pencil lines with beeswax, which sets up almost immediately. The egg is then dipped in dye. She has about 45 different coloured dyes to choose from and always works from lightest to darkest.
After the dye dries more of the egg is covered with wax to preserve the colour just added. Once all the desired stages of waxing and dying have been completed the wax is then heated and wiped off to reveal a beautiful and intricately designed Pysanka.
She has also been experimenting with etching eggs. Portions of the egg are again covered with wax and then the egg is dipped in vinegar. The idea being the uncovered part of the shell is eaten away by the acidic vinegar. Once the wax is removed an intricate design appears to have been carved or etched into the shell.
While most people associate Pysanka with Easter time, Hagarty actually does them starting in the Fall and through the winter months. Having lost her husband, Shae Hagarty, to cancer, she decided last spring to offer the Pysanka’s she completed for sale at Rainy River’s Relay for Life. “I think we raised $120!”
But since then many people have seen her work and said she was not charging enough. One of those people offered her $80 for four. She took it and donated all the money to the Cancer Society.
She recently started a Facebook Page called Jo’s Eggs. She showcases them and has offered them for sale, but does not guarantee they will arrive intact on long distances. “I did send two away at Christmas. One to Montreal and one out west... they both made it and were packed really well.” Again all the proceeds go to the Cancer Society.
She is hoping to have at least five dozen done again before Relay in June. She often spends hours every night working on them. “I get started and lose track of time. Before I know it three hours have passed!”
She has had some disappointments along the way. “I once had seven hours into an egg. I left it in the vinegar a little too long and it was ruined.” Another time a Pysanka with numerous hours of work into it collapsed in her hand while she was trying to drain it. “I am sad for a bit, but then just start on another one.”
Early on she had not learned to blow the eggs innards out, but does now with all her eggs. If they are not blown out the insides will eventually dry up. But if the egg is broken before then, the smell from rotten eggs is not very pleasant.
Once all the waxing, dying and stripping of wax is complete, she applies a very thin coat of varnish to protect the shell. She then drills a small hole to blow out the egg.
Each Pysanka can take anywhere from two to nine hours, depending on detail and size. “I just enjoy this so much time goes by quickly!”