Pysanka eggs ~ A Ukranian tradition

“At right, Elisa Melnychenko-Feuk holds a beautifully decorated ostrich egg–the largest size she works with to turn them into traditional Ukranian pysanka (hollow) eggs. Three weeks of work went into this design. (Photo by Ken George) With every stroke of her beeswax-filled kistka, Elisa Melnychenko-Feuk pulls a time line of her family’s history across the surface of the egg she’s turning into a colorful work of art.Melnychenko-Feuk, of Tacoma, makes traditional Ukrainian pysanka (hollow) eggs, which she designs free-hand style in a batik wax-resist fashion.Her first steps are to dye eggs in a color she wants, and then use a tool called a kistka to draw her designs on the egg’s surface–from small eggs like cockatiel and bantam quail eggs, chicken or duck eggs–to as large as an ostrich egg.A kistka is a small, wooden-handled tool with a brass, cone-shaped funnel that Melnychenko-Feuk scrapes across a small block of beeswax for shavings. She repeatedly heats the kistka over the flame of a candle to keep the wax melting, which flows through a tiny opening and onto the egg-much like the ink from a pen.The beeswax acts as a shield against the next color of dye she chooses. She works on three eggs at a time, keeping them moving through the dye baths-from the lightest color to the darkest.At the last stage, the egg is mostly covered with beeswax and little can be seen of the design. That’s when Melnychenko-Feuk holds each egg over a candle flame to melt all the beeswax, and then polishes them with a tissue to expose all details of the design and the vibrant, jewel-like colors.Her final touch is to add a protective, glossy coat by rolling each egg in varnish twice in the palm of her hand. Melnychenko-Feuk prefers to work on hollow eggs because if she dyes an egg with its contents intact and it isn’t turned monthly by the person who purchases it, until the interior of the egg dries out, it can implode or even explode.Her husband, Chandler, hollows the eggs for her. Melnychenko-Feuk is a master gardner and herb specialist with over a decade of experience. She prepares most of the natural dyes her eggs are colored by. Reds, yellows and oranges come from the seeds of the alknet plant; black from the bark of the madrona tree; lavenders to purples from beets and the skins of purple onions; light reds and light purples from ladies’ bedstraw; brown from sumac leaves and shoots; and more yellows from the flowering branches of the scotchbroom.And I get a nice grey from spring blackberry shoots, she added.Many people purchase Melnychenko-Feuk’s eggs in celebration of the Easter holiday, but she said that, They often look for specific designs that can be given on a number of special occasions; births, baptisms, and even birthdays or other holidays.Each symbol on the eggs has significance. For example, a fish is the ancient symbol for Christ and is also considered a guide from confusion; tear drops represent the fallen tears of Mary as she wept for Jesus on the cross. Many designs from nature are used as well. Birds represent fertility and fulfill-ment of wishes and flowers mean beauty, children, and new life.Colors are as important as the egg’s design. White means purity, yellow repre-sents the moon and stars and a successful harvest; green is the color of spring and the rebirth of nature. Talking about her heritage, Melnychenko-Feuk said that what she loves most about dyeing the eggs is that she is, the only relative now carrying on a Ukrainian tradition; and it shows my own children this is something to be proud of.Her father, Boris Melnychenko, was from Kirovgard in the Ukraine. He was a survivor of Nazi slave labor camps there, and was finally able to emigrate to the United States in 1949 with his brother, three sisters and his parents. He left behind a culture that included the tradition of the dyed eggs-an art that began to die.Ukrainians weren’t allowed to do anything with a religious overtone then, Melnychenko-Feuk said.When her father married her Scandinavian mother in 1950, she embraced his Ukrainian heritage. Melnychenko-Feuk grew up in Minnesota, where a large group of Ukrainians had settled, and was embraced by that culture. But she hasn’t always carried on the Ukrainian tradition of dyeing eggs. When she was a little girl and asked her aunts and grandmother if she could learn to make the pretty eggs too, they told her No. You must live life and watch, her Baba (grandmother), used to say.So she began her life and when she turned 21, she decided it was time to learn the art. She promptly quit. They’re all nuts! she decided. It wasn’t as easy to learn as she thought it would be.She eventually married, traveled extensively, and had two sons, Aaron and Andrew. When she settled in the Tacoma area, she decided it was time to try dyeing the eggs again. I’d lived life, she said. She’s now been practicing her craft for the past 15 years, and supplies art galleries across the United States with her work.I do it out of sheer joy, she said. And I have special ones I enjoy at different times for awhile, then I say ‘goodbye.’ Melnychenko-Feuk said her father went back to the Ukraine six years ago to visit family he hadn’t seen in fifty years. With him went gifts–dyed eggs Melnychenko-Feuk had created–an art of her father’s native land that had nearly died out and which has only recently been revived there.She said the greatest compliment she has ever received was when her father told her, I wish Baba was alive to see you doing this. She would be so proud.Melnychenko-Feuk believes her grandmother keeps a loving eye on her.I think Baba watches me from heaven now and says, ‘Now you’ve lived life!’ Where to purchase Pysanka eggs Dazzling displays of Melnychenko-Feuk’s eggs will greet visitors at her home where they can purchase her eggs for Easter or other special occasions. She will open her house to visitors: ~Friday, March 30, from 4 to 7 p.m. ~Saturday, March 31, from 1 to 4 p.m. ~Sunday, April 1 from 1 to 4 p.m. The following week she will have the same hours: ~Friday, April 6, from 4 to 7 p.m. ~Saturday, April 7, from 1 to 4 p.m. ~Sunday, April 8, from 1 to 4 p.m. Directions to the Melnychenko-Feuk house, located at 12A Chase Lane, Tacoma, are: Take Gravelly Lake Drive to Veterans Drive to the VA Hospital at American Lake. Make a left at the first paved road, left at the stop sign, and follow the road around to 12A Chase Lane (hospital quarters). Melnychenko-Feuk can be contacted at 253/581-1444.”