Thirty people will have an opportunity to learn the art of decorating Ukrainian Easter eggs, or pysanky, at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History this year.
The museum has been offering the classes for four years, and this will be the first year Karen Nealis, administrative assistant at the museum and a fourth-generation Ukrainian-American, will teach the class alone. In the past, she worked with Maria Skaskiew, a second-generation Ukranian-American, who has moved.
“Her daughter moved to the coast,” laughed Nealis, “and she followed her grandbabies.”
Nealis has taken on the mantle and assured Skaskiew evil spirits will be warded off. Banishment of evil spirits is one of several things for which pysanky are credited. Good fortune and increased milk and honey production are others.
The art of decorating eggs with dyes and a wax resist predates Christianity in Ukraine and was originally done by pagans to welcome the solstice, said Nealis. “They were adopted by the Orthodox church early on,” she added. Pagan symbols were re-purposed and Christian symbols adopted.
“They are given as gifts to bring good things,” said Nealis. “In my family, we gave them at Christmas and Easter.”
A class scheduled for Saturday is already sold out, and the museum scheduled another class for March 24. Five people signed up Tuesday, the day the class was opened. In some years, three classes are scheduled, but Easter is early this year, and there will be only two.
We have a maximum of 15 people in a class,” said Nealis. “When you’ve got fire going on, you don’t want more than 15.”
Ukrainian Easter eggs are made using a wax-resist method, much like batik, but on eggs. “You don’t paint on the egg,” said Nealis. “You put wax everywhere you don’t want color.” First, wax is applied to areas that are to remain white. Colors are applied from light to dark, starting with yellow and ending with black. “The darker colors have more fortune,” said Nealis. “Black is the best.”
“At the end, the egg is basically covered in wax,” said Nealis. Then the wax is removed. “As you rub it, it reveals your design. But you have to be careful, or you’ll break the egg.”
Though Nealis will make available all of the traditional motifs to class participants, she said some students go their own way. In previous years, students have done flower designs. “Hippy eggs,” she calls them.
Matt Edwards, director of the museum, said when Maria Skaskiew suggested the class several years ago, the museum was looking for a good Easter-themed workshop. An Easter bonnet workshop that had been going on for a decade was losing steam, “and there’s a ton of competition with Easter egg hunts,” he said. “It’s been a mainstay program ever since.”
“There are a lot of people of Eastern European descent here,” said Edwards. “The granite quarry was a driver of immigration for years,” he said. “Skilled stone-cutters came from Southern and Eastern Europe,” and located here as a direct result of the granite quarry.”
“This program allows us the opportunity to pay a little homage to that history.”
“We have such a good time,” said Nealis. “You walk away with all the information, and we have kits available to take home and do additional eggs.”
Nealis recommends the eggs be kept in a china cabinet because of their fragility. Raw eggs are used in the process, and Nealis says you can blow out the raw egg, but you don’t have to. “You have to have a lot of jaw power to blow out an egg.”
Alternatively, Nealis said, “you can rotate them regularly, and the yolk dehydrates. There will be a little ball in there after the first year. Then you don’t have to rotate them any more.
The workshop scheduled for Saturday is sold out. Spaces were still available at press time for a second class on March 24 from 1-4 p.m. at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, 301 N. Main St. The cost is $15 for museum members, $20 for non-members. Call 336-786-4478 to reserve a spot.
The next opportunity to play with fire at the museum will come on April 21, from 1-5 p.m. when the museum hosts a blacksmithing workshop with Master Blacksmith Joe Allen.
“This one will be big fire,” laughed Edwards. Participants will create an S-hook, leaf key-chain, and plant holder (time permitting). All tools and materials will be provided. Class size is limited. $75 for museum members, $100 for non-members.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.