Set Decorator Peter Gurski Finds Sanity in Pysanky Egg Decorating

Written by
Peter Gursky portrait
Peter Gurski, ready for egg decorating(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Peter Gurski is a Los Angeles-based set decorator and interior designer who is currently working on a new TBS sitcom called Clipped.

But when Easter comes around he picks up tools and dyes and goes back to the decorating tradition he grew up with: Pysanky, the ancient Ukrainian art of egg decorating.

Read on for more on Pysanky, how to do it — without cracking an egg — and why it remains so vital for Ukrainians throughout a turbulent history.

DnA: What is Pysanky?

Peter Gurski: Pysanky is a very old egg decorating technique that goes back before the Ukraine was Christian, and it’s always been based around the renewal of the land when spring comes and the eggs were decorated as a symbol during celebrations of spring. A lot of the symbols that you see on the eggs relate to agriculture, as well as good health, fertility, religion and even love.

DnA: Why is it important to you?

PG: I’ve been doing set decorating for about twelve years, but I’ve been in the television and film industry for a long time and have found that the best way to keep a sane mind in an insane industry is to have some outside interests. And Pysanky is one of them. And that I bring from my childhood; my mother taught me Pysanky.

Pysanky eggs; photo courtesy

We were an Italian-Ukrainian family; my father was Ukrainian and my Italian mother adopted the custom and she used to give workshops when I was growing up on how to do the Pysanky egg decorating.

DnA: Describe to us the quintessential Pysanka (decorated egg.)

PG: The quintessential pysanka is something of great beauty and done by someone with a very steady hand, and usually it’s a raw egg. Rarely are they punctured and emptied, and over time the inside of the egg dries up.

The eggs are multi-colored, multi -designed and they almost look like a miniature Faberge egg except they are done by hand and with dye. The most beautiful eggs are symmetrical and geometric as well and show a variety of colors.

DnA: And you say they’re all done with dye. Can you explain the process? It looks like it might be quite complicated.

PG: Well, I think there is a wide variety of techniques. But the classic way to do it is through a series of drawings with beeswax and then different layers of dye. So I was taught that you start with the white egg and you have a little instrument called a stylus which has a little metal tip with a hole in it.

It’s cone-shaped, and you heat it up in a candle and then put a hot tip into a cake of beeswax which liquefies it. Then you put it back in the candle and so you have liquid beeswax in this tiny little stylus with which you draw on the egg.

So once you cover the surface of the egg, its color is preserved because of the beeswax.

eggclass, Peter teaching
Peter Gurski teaching a Pysanky class; photo courtesy original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

You do the design in layers. You start by circumscribing the egg in a couple of different directions so that geometrically it’s divided up into quadrants, and then you’ll apply your lightest color like yellow, and then you’ll draw some symbols around the egg and then you go to a darker color like maybe a light pink or a light green.

You draw some more with the beeswax so by the end of the process you’ve done five or six dippings in colors that are consecutively darker and darker. Some of the most beautiful eggs are the ones that show a lot of contrast between the white of the original shell of the egg and the different colors, and that’s what really gives the designs their interest and they are really colorful, eye-popping designs.

Peter's nephew Aidan works on egg decoratingDnA: Is there a lot of freedom within that tradition or are there traditional patterns that everybody sticks to?

PG: I think there are a million versions or permutations of the traditional forms, so that for each new generation as they’re taught, it’s still true to them. So I think new ideas about how to dye or how to contrast or how to draw whatever symbol gets renewed with each generation. But I think basing pysanky on the traditional symbols is what gives it continuity over hundreds of years.

DnA: Pysanky is something kids in LA might try once a year, and they are not that skilled. Would it be okay for them to boil the egg?

PG: Well, I think actually the problem is that the shell of a boiled egg may react differently to the dyes. When I was growing up we used to use aniline dyes but you can’t now because they are poisonous. Now they use vegetable dye, so I think a boiled egg is probably fine.

But I’ve had my niece and nephew do pysanky from a young age — four and five — and I think there was only one unhappy accident. Kids just handle the eggs differently, they know it possibly could break. And it makes them concentrate more I think.

eggclass7, dye and patterns on wall
photo courtesy (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I think also some of the most charming eggs come from the young kids who are trying to do it; you know their scrawly, scribbly designs are quite enchanting.

It’s very fun to watch young kids try this art form. Many of them are fascinated with it, even in this internet age. You know, it’s such a centuries-old craft where you get to use your hands and create something beautiful that is unexpected. Kids still draw on paper but on an egg?

DnA: It must be a sorrowful moment if the egg cracks and is turned into scrambles.

PG: There are not all happy moments in life so maybe that’s reflected in the cracked egg.

DnA: How many days in advance of Easter are the eggs painted and then do they sit in a bowl looking beautiful, ready to be cooked maybe after Easter?

PG: What I try and do is have a decorating session about a week before Easter.

That way it’s really close to the holiday, and it means something and then afterwards, because of the effort and because of the dyes used — and this harkens back to aniline dyes — you probably wouldn’t want to hard boil it.

But I think people like to hang on to these kind of eggs, especially when the kids get to do them, and put them in the china cabinet for later. That way I have something from my niece and nephew over the years.

Pysanky eggs; photo courtesy
Pysanky eggs; photo courtesy (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: Did you decorate eggs already?

PG: Because of work I’m running a bit behind. But I pulled out my dyes and all my equipment just the other day and hopefully this Saturday, just a day before Easter, we will do some egg decorating.

I’m going to try and lure my niece and nephew back, both of whom are now pre-teens and very much preoccupied with so many other things.

But my sister supports it so I think we’ll all be together on Saturday decorating.

DnA: With everything that’s going on in Russia right now concerning Ukraine do you think a tradition like pysanky takes on another level of significance for Ukrainians?

PG: I think it always has. Even when you go back to when Ukraine was under communist rule in the U.S.S.R., I think it was a strong tradition that, especially now, brings hope and tradition to the people, because it goes back centuries, and it shows that the spirit and the tradition of the people outlasts outside influence.

DnA: Lastly, tell us what films and TV shows you’re working on now?

PG: I’m working on a sitcom that is probably airing a little bit later this year.

It’s called Clipped (formerly Buzzy’s) and it’s a TBS show about a group of young barbers in Boston who all work together. It’s from the writers-producers Max Mutchnick and David Collins who created Will and Grace.

So it’s very fun and we’ll be producing episodes till June and I’m at the Warner Brothers lot which is my favorite lot to work at.

So between TV creating and egg decorating, I’m very happy.

Peter Gurski and his nephew and niece show off their latest pysanky eggs
Peter Gurski and his nephew and niece — Morgan, left of picture, and Aidan — show off their pysanky eggs painted for Easter 2015. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

This interview was edited for length and clarity.