From Ukraine, the art of eggs

Images appear magically on raw eggs using the drawing and dyeing process called pysanky

FIRST CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH in Port Washington recently hosted a session on how to make pysanky eggs taught by Terry McManus (standing), who hopes to pass on her passion for the craft. (Lower) TERRY MCMANUS showed off some of the work from the session. Photos by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

They’re not hardboiled, they’re not for eating and they don’t have a connection to Easter.

But Port Washington’s Terry McManus said this time of year is fitting to pass along her passion for pysanky eggs.

The Ukrainian tradition calls for dyeing and applying hot wax to raw eggs that can create exquisite decor year round.

“They call pysanky writing on eggs because pysanky means to write in Ukranian,” McManus said.

McManus, who isn’t Ukrainian but was taught by someone with Ukrainian roots, recently held a workshop on the process for a few people at First Congregational Church in Port Washington.

“It’s fun to teach and it’s fun to see people work on it in a lot of different ways,” she said. “So I’m hoping to teach a number of people.”

When McManus taught in Ann Arbor, Mich., years ago, some of her favorite students were 12-year-olds —mostly boys — in special ed.

“They loved it. You’re working with a candle and a flame and raw eggs,” she said. “I actually got a grant to buy materials.”

McManus said the pysanky process starts with drawing a design in pencil on an egg, although some crafters just freehand everything.

Since eggs aren’t flat, “It’s hard to draw,” McManus said.

Then a pen-like tool called a kistka is used to put hot wax on the design. Kistkas have tiny cups on one end that store heated wax, which travels through a pointed end like a fine-tipped piping bag placing frosting on a cake.

Kistkas are heated by being held in a candle flame. Then they are held to a piece of wax to load the cups.

Crafters then start drawing on the eggs.

Whatever is drawn on the white egg will remain white since the wax protects the color like masking tape does for painters.

“Black lines turn white,” McManus said. “It’s in reverse.”

Eggs may be placed into a vinegar rinse in preparation for dyeing. They are usually dyed a light color such as yellow at first, then the wax drawing process repeats. Everything drawn remains yellow in the final product. After dyeing, eggs are patted down with paper towels to dry.

The drawing, dyeing and drying process may be repeated with as many colors as desired.

McManus uses a small egg holder while she draws. Drawings run the gamut and carry different meanings on the eggs. Horses, ladders and rakes generally mean wealth and prosperity. Spirals are for protection, wheat is abundance, stars and the sun are growth and good fortune and pine boughs are strength, growth and eternal life, according to

At the end, the wax can be melted off the egg to reveal its final multi-colored design using a few different methods.

Heat guns or holding the egg to a candle are popular techniques for melting off the wax. McManus has placed eggs for a short time in a 200-degree oven, then dabbed them with soft napkins.

Some people poke a hole inside and blow out the egg. McManus recommends doing that at the end.

“The really fine crafters will glue the piece back in with beeswax.”

Eggs may be placed in individual displays or in groups. Some are used as Christmas ornaments or given as gifts.

“Once you do one egg you know how to do it. It’s just refining and steadying your hands,” she said. “ It’s really not as hard as it looks.”

McManus used to get together with friends once a year in Michigan to make pysanky eggs.

Cecelia Ference, whose obituary says she was known as the Ukrainian Easter Egg Lady, taught a group the process.

“It’s almost meditative. It’s so relaxing. It’s very satisfying to make them,” McManus said.

“There’s nothing difficult about the basics. It’s something you work at.”

This year, McManus was able to pass along her hobby with the class at church. She wanted to do it around Easter when eggs are popular.

“I can get the materials together and I can teach people. I’m not skilled at it in terms of design,” she said.

McManus, now retired, devotes her time to instructing rather than creating her own art. She used to paint and draw.

“I’m more of a teacher than an artist,” she said. “I’m really good at helping people appreciate their own abilities. I could never be an artist at the same time.”

The pysanky custom predates the Christian era and McManus said she hopes it will carry on.


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