Shelby resident shares Ukrainian tradition of pysanky

By: Sarah Wojcik | Shelby - Utica News | Published March 21, 2016

 Wandrei demonstrates how to decorate an egg with beeswax using a kistka, or stylus, at the library March 19.

Wandrei demonstrates how to decorate an egg with beeswax using a kistka, or stylus, at the library March 19.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

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SHELBY TOWNSHIP — The ornate and delicate art of decorating Ukrainian Easter eggs, or pysanky, is a tradition that one Shelby Township resident of Ukrainian heritage holds dear.

Cathy Wandrei learned how to decorate pysanky from her family and passed on the tradition to her two daughters, ages 25 and 26. Every year since 2007, Wandrei has displayed her large and varied collection of pysanky at the Shelby Township Library.

Wandrei said both of her parents share a Ukrainian background, and one of her grandfathers came from Ukraine to Ellis Island.

“‘Pysanky’ the word comes from the verb meaning ‘to write,’” she said. “The eggs are not colored on with markers and not painted on like Polish eggs, but are actually written using a tool called a ‘kistka.’”

A kistka is a writing stylus like an ink pen, she said, with a metal tip that is filled with beeswax and melted over a candle flame.

“After drawing on a design with pencil, you use the kistka to write on the egg with the melted beeswax. You can use a variety of sizes (of kistka),” she said.

The eggs are then dipped in colored aniline dyes in a progression from lightest to darkest.

“Each time you write on the egg, it’s called the ‘batik’ method — wherever you put the wax, that color of dye stays,” Wandrei said. “At the end, when you melt the wax off, it reveals this beautiful little piece of art.”

Once the eggs are finished, she covers them in an archival-grade clear coat that protects the color and adds shine. She said she generally empties the contents of the eggs through a single miniscule hole and sanitizes the inside of the shells; otherwise, she faces the risk of the eggs exploding.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “And it smells really bad.”

Ukrainians typically write their eggs during Lent. Wandrei said it typically takes her three hours to complete one pysanka, depending on the complexity of the design and number of dyes.

When she first began learning the art form, she said, she stuck to traditional designs. Each symbol and color has a meaning. Now, she said she likes to experiment with more contemporary designs.

“When you write an egg, typically Ukrainians gave it away with somebody in mind, so they incorporated wishes for them to have a nice big family or wonderful crops as farmers,” she said.

The hobby, Wandrei said, is soothing for her and she loves the aroma of the candle heating the beeswax. She said she buys most of her eggs from local farmers.

“The whole reason why I make Ukrainian eggs is I want to continue my heritage,” she said. “It’s not just an art for old people or for moms and dads. Young people can do it too, and people are starting their (small) children.”

Wandrei sells her custom pysanky and also teaches in-home classes for those interested in learning the Ukrainian art form.

Elizabeth Campion, the librarian in charge of the front display case, said the library highlights a local resident or group each month.

“We always try to make sure Cathy is on the schedule for the month Easter is in, or at least Lent,” Campion said. “Cathy does an amazing job with the eggs, and I’m so glad she shares them with us. They’re an important part of the season to think about spring.”

Campion said she recently received an anonymous note from a regular patron to pass on to Wandrei that read, “Nicest egg display ever.”

Wandrei’s pysanky exhibit shows different types of bird eggs, including turkey, quail, duck and chicken eggs; traditional and contemporary designs; a kistka and candle; the dye progression of a single egg; the meanings of symbols and colors; traditional Ukrainian dolls; and more. It will be on display through the month of March.

The Shelby Township Library is located at 51680 Van Dyke Ave., north of 23 Mile Road. For more information, call the library at (586) 739-7414.

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