Designing Ukrainian Easter eggs helps artist cope with war in homeland

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A wax-resistant method on an egg with the yolk inside, the art of pysanka was a secret practice passed down from mother to daughter. Photo courtesy of Sofika Zielyk.

Effervescent colored tablets haven’t always been the method of choice to dye Easter eggs. In Ukraine, where pysanka, the art of egg decorating, dates back more than 1,000 years, the tradition is taken to a whole new level of intricacy. 

New Yorker Sofika Zielyk specializes in the artform. Evan Kleiman first interviewed her in 2007. Because of Ukraine’s conflict with Russia now, Good Food decided to revisit the culture of these eggs.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KCRW: I just want to say formally that I am just devastated, and I’m so sorry for what you and your friends and family who live in Ukraine are going through.

Sofia Zielyk: It is horrific. We have family in Ukraine. My parents came to the US as refugees after World War II, and they always talked about their experiences. But when I see all the pictures and videos on TV, now I know exactly what they went through. And seeing my distant relatives going through the same thing in Ukraine right now is just heartbreaking. I never, ever thought that this would happen. So thank you very, very much. And I thank all the people all around the world for their support. It truly means a lot.

Are you finding any kind of solace in your work?

Absolutely. In the first few days, when Russia invaded, I, as everybody else, was glued to the TV and constantly emailing my friends and relatives in Ukraine. I couldn't do any work. It was as if I was going through the stages of grief. At first it was shock and disbelief, then it was utter sadness. And then it was rage. I think when I was in the rage phase, I sat down at my work table and I started doing an egg. And that calmed me down. I just went into this meditative state, if you can call it that. And it truly helps. Right now I feel connected with the people in Ukraine. I don't know how else to explain it. But it's like this little thread from New York from the East Village, all the way to the poor people of Ukraine.

You recently said in an Instagram post that “Everyone defends themselves with weapons they know best. As a pysanka artist, my weapon is an ordinary egg.”

There is a very old pre-Christian legend that says there is an awful monster chained up in the Carpathian Mountains. This is in western Ukraine. And each year, he sends out his spies into the world to see if people are creating pysanky. If people are, the spies come back and tighten the monster’s chains. But if the spies don't come back, because people are not making pysanky, the chains become looser and looser. Eventually, the monster will get free, and it will be the end of the world. 

I actually started a project at the Ukrainian Institute of America here in New York. I put out a social media post about this legend and about this monster, who is evil personified. And we all know who that is right now. And I am asking everybody who cares to make one traditional pysanka design, and send it to the Ukrainian Institute for an art installation. And this is my way of defeating the monster, of defeating evil personified.

More: These intricately decorated eggs are raising money and good wishes for Ukraine

For people who have never seen a Ukrainian decorated egg, can you describe what they look like — the colors, the designs, and the history of those designs?

This is an extremely ancient tradition. In pagan times, our ancestors lived with and according to nature. Anything they could not explain, they explained by the power of nature spirits. Eventually, those spirits became personified and pagan gods were born. In the winter time, people thought that the god of the sun was leaving them because the days grew shorter and the nights grew longer. So they had a spring ritual to bring back the sun. They chose an egg as a gift to the sun for a few reasons. 

Number one, birds fly higher in the air, they're much closer to the sun than people were. So when the people held an egg in their hands, they thought they could harness a little bit of the power of the sun. Number two, the yolk reminded the people of the sun. So it was the sun's image. And the third reason was that the sun god had a chosen creature, the rooster. When the rooster crows, the sun comes out. So the sun god only listened to the rooster. And what the people did, they included symbols of tribute and different prayers in the hopes that the sun god would grant them the wishes. 

Sofika Zielyk describes an old, pre-Christian tale of a monster chained in the Carpathian mountains. According to legend, if people create pysanka (Ukrainian Easter eggs), the monster’s chains are tightened. Photo courtesy of Sofika Zielyk.

So for example, if they drew a chick, it was fertility, a pine branch is health, a flower is happiness, a deer is our prosperity and strength. The star rosette, which is an eight-pointed star, was the symbol of the almighty sun god. And this tradition was passed down from mother to daughter in secret, so that nobody else could see you creating a pysanka because they might cast an evil eye on the design and the sun god would not grant them the wish. 

There's so much symbolism and history. And then, when Ukraine adopted Christianity in the 10th century AD, this tradition was incorporated into the Christian religion. So very often one symbol has a double meaning, like the pagan and the Christian. For example, the cross [that’s] equal on all four sides was the symbol of the sun himself. And as Christianity grew more important, the horizontal bar went up and it became the Christian cross. And now these eggs are known as Easter eggs. But in pagan times, it was a spring ritual of rebirth of nature, of getting the sun back.

Started in pagan times and adopted into Christianity around 10 A.D., pysanka is a spring ritual of rebirth of nature and the return of the sun. Photo courtesy of Sofika Zielyk. Photo courtesy of Sofika Zielyk.

How old were you when you first learned how to decorate the egg?

I was about five or six [when] I actually made my first egg. I remember falling asleep and watching my mother sitting at the desk with a candle, an egg, and a stylus. It was so peaceful, so magical, that I remember it till this day. … I remember climbing up on my mother's lap and together, we created an egg. And I mean together because this is done with a candle, a stylus, and hot wax. So [for] a five-year-old, it's sort of dangerous. But I remember that design. It was just stars, lines, and circles. I remember that moment very well.

So it's a wax-resist method on a hollow eggshell?

Yes and no. It's a wax resistance method on an egg that is full inside. Traditionally, there was no point in making the designs on an egg shell, because there's life inside the egg. And the yolk reminded the people of the sun. So if you blow out the inside, you don't have the power of the sun anymore. So it was very important to leave the yolk inside, and eventually the yolk dries out inside. So it's really no problem. It's batik on an egg.

The designs on Ukrainian easter eggs are symbolic — chicks represent fertility, flowers are happiness, and a pine branch is an omen for good health. Photo courtesy of Sofika Zielyk.

What kind of dyes do you use?

In olden days, these were strictly passed down from mother to daughter. These were secret dyes of roots, berries, flowers, and even nuts. But now these are special chemical dyes made especially for these types of eggs.

If you get gifted an egg, do you ever eat it? Or are they kept as keepsakes throughout the years?

You can't eat what's inside because it's not hard-boiled. Originally, these eggs were not meant to be kept for a long time. There were uses for them. During the Lenten season, of course they were made. And then as the Easter season approached, they were gifted to other people. And there are rules on who to give which egg. For example, if a woman or somebody is sickly, they would get a pine branch for health. A boy would get strength and prosperity, which is either a deer or a rooster. 

There were [other] uses for them. They were ground up in cattle feed so that the cattle would be healthier. The shells would be buried in gardens so that there would be a better harvest. An egg with an eternity symbol was put in beehives so there would be continuous honey. When a house was being built, an egg was put on the four corners of the house so that no evil spirit would come. When a young child died during the Easter season, a pysanka was placed in the coffin so that the child would have something to play with. There are all these traditions on what to do with the eggs. Of course, now they are works of art, and they can be kept year after year. But traditionally, no, every year new eggs were made.

Designs with deer represent prosperity and strength, and are often given to boys during the Easter season. Photo courtesy of Sofika Zielyk.

Has your art changed over the years?

Yes and no. I love doing the traditional designs. When people started immigrating, they brought with them all their traditions. But eventually they forgot the symbolism. And the emphasis now was not on the symbols themselves, but on the perfection of the designs. I started doing what are known as the diaspora eggs, which are eggs that are very intricate and you try to do imperfectly. That's the way I started. And then I started delving into the history of these eggs and I saw what the traditional designs were like. And I started doing that. So I researched the designs that are very old, you can say ancient, even. 

And I still continue doing the diasporan designs, but [when] I lived in Ukraine in 2014 to 2015, I was fortunate enough to receive a Fulbright grant, and I was researching how folk art influenced Ukrainian fine artists of the early 20th century, like Sonia Delaunay and Kazimir Malevich. I started to create egg designs in their artistic style. However, I could not do anything if I had not first researched the traditional designs.