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Easter Egg Art: Hatched From An Ancient Tradition To Celebrate Rebirth

  • Ukrainians have been crafting pysanky, elaborately decorated eggs, for thousands of years. "There's an ancient legend that as long as pysanky are made, evil will not prevail in the world," says one pysanky artist.
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    Ukrainians have been crafting pysanky, elaborately decorated eggs, for thousands of years. "There's an ancient legend that as long as pysanky are made, evil will not prevail in the world," says one pysanky artist.
    Keith Ewing/Flickr
  • A sculpture made of 3,000 wooden painted Easter eggs constructed at the 1,000-year-old Monastery of Caves in Kiev, during Easter in 2010.
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    A sculpture made of 3,000 wooden painted Easter eggs constructed at the 1,000-year-old Monastery of Caves in Kiev, during Easter in 2010.
    Sergei Chuzavkov/AP
  • Famous Ukrainian Easter egg artist Galina Ivanets paints her creation with a writing pin in her workshop in Kiev, Ukraine. "Pysankarstvo" — the art of painting Easter eggs — has enjoyed a renaissance as part of the religious and cultural awakening in post-Soviet Ukraine following decades of state-sponsored atheism.
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    Famous Ukrainian Easter egg artist Galina Ivanets paints her creation with a writing pin in her workshop in Kiev, Ukraine. "Pysankarstvo" — the art of painting Easter eggs — has enjoyed a renaissance as part of the religious and cultural awakening in post-Soviet Ukraine following decades of state-sponsored atheism.
    Efrem Lukatsky/AP
  • Yes, there is even a Pysanka Museum — in Kolomyia, Ukraine.
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    Yes, there is even a Pysanka Museum — in Kolomyia, Ukraine.
    highboom/Flickr
  • Contemporary artists continue to create new forms of egg art. New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast learned pysanky technique to make egg art that reflects modern anxieties.
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    Contemporary artists continue to create new forms of egg art. New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast learned pysanky technique to make egg art that reflects modern anxieties.
    Roz Chast
  • Artist Roz Chast says that egg art is a perilous process. "There's something about their fragile nature that in an insane way appeals to me," Chast says.
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    Artist Roz Chast says that egg art is a perilous process. "There's something about their fragile nature that in an insane way appeals to me," Chast says.
    Roz Chast
  • A picture taken on April 22, 2011, shows a special Easter eggshell decorated with more than 20,000 holes by Franc Grom, an artist based in the Slovenian village of Stara Vrhnika. Using a tiny electric drill, Grom pokes thousands of holes in eggshells to create intricate designs.
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    A picture taken on April 22, 2011, shows a special Easter eggshell decorated with more than 20,000 holes by Franc Grom, an artist based in the Slovenian village of Stara Vrhnika. Using a tiny electric drill, Grom pokes thousands of holes in eggshells to create intricate designs.
    Hrvoje Polan/AFP/Getty Images
  • The Catherine the Great Easter egg was commissioned by Czar Nicholas II for his mother. The Faberge workshop crafted it out of diamonds, pearls, silver, gold, platinum and a shimmering opalescent enamel. It originally held a tiny statue of Catherine the Great.
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    The Catherine the Great Easter egg was commissioned by Czar Nicholas II for his mother. The Faberge workshop crafted it out of diamonds, pearls, silver, gold, platinum and a shimmering opalescent enamel. It originally held a tiny statue of Catherine the Great.
    Hillwood Estates

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This story was originally published in April 2012.

It all starts with the egg.

In spring, chickens start laying again, bringing a welcome source of protein at winter's end. So it's no surprise that cultures around the world celebrate spring by honoring the egg.

Some traditions are simple, like the red eggs that get baked into Greek Easter breads. Others elevate the egg into an elaborate art, like the heavily jewel-encrusted Faberge eggs that were favored by the Russian czars starting in the 19th century.

One ancient form of egg art comes to us from Ukraine. For centuries, Ukrainians have been drawing intricate patterns on pysanky — eggs decorated using a traditional method that involves a stylus and wax. Contemporary artists have adapted these methods to create eggs that speak to the anxieties of our age: Life is precious, and fragile. Eggs are, too.

"There's something about their fragile nature that in an insane way appeals to me," says New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. Several years ago, she became obsessed with eggs and learned the traditional wax-resist technique used for Ukrainian pysanky to draw her very modern characters. "I've broken eggs at every stage of the process — from the very beginning to the very, very end."

But there's an appeal in that vulnerability. "There's part of this sickening horror of knowing you're walking on the edge with this, that I kind of like. Knowing that it could all fall apart at any second."

Chast's designs reflect that fragility, from a worried man alone in a wee rowboat, to a Humpty Dumpty who seems all too aware of his imminent fate.

Traditional Ukrainian pysanky also spoke to those fears. The elaborate patterns were believed to offer protection against evil.

"There's an ancient legend that as long as pysanky are made, evil will not prevail in the world," says Joan Brander, a pysanky artist in Richmond, B.C. She's been making pysanky for more than 60 years, having learned the art of the egg from her Ukrainian relatives.

The pysansky tradition, says Brander, dates back to Ukrainian spring rituals in pre-Christian times. The tradition was incorporated into the Christian church, but the old symbols endure. "A pysanka with a bird on it, [when] given to a young married couple, is a wish for children," she explains. "A pysanka thrown into the field would be a wish for a good harvest."

She says that pysanky artists used to work in secret, unveiling their designs on Easter. But with the Internet, pysanky has become a democratized art. Artists share designs and techniques online, so they no longer have to rely on family traditions.

Paul Wirhun, an artist in Provincetown, Mass., has adapted pysanky techniques he learned as a child in a Ukrainian-American family for decidedly modern ends, including a series of eggs commemorating those who died in the Iraq war.

The egg, Wirhun says, is not just a symbolic object — "it's a power object." When people raised chickens themselves, he notes, the eggs would have been fertilized by a rooster. "It wasn't just a representation of new life, it was new life." When artists decorate eggs, Wirhun says, they evoke that power in their art.

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