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Ukrainians celebrate Easter with tradition of pysanky art

Press Photos by Linda Sailer Pysanky are recognized by their rich colors and symbolism in the Ukrainian tradition. These are among Agnes Palanuk’s collection.

Pysanky — the art of dying Easter eggs with rich colors and symbolism — is one that Agnes Palanuk of Dickinson associates with the Lenten season and Easter morning.

"It’s the life inside the egg… Christ rises again," she said.

Pysanky has its origin in the second century at Ukraine. Dyeing eggs into pysanky in southwestern North Dakota began in the closing years of the 1900s, Palanuk said.

"And when survival was assured and Easter was approaching, they remembered the pysanky," she said. "From what we could determine, the immigrants didn’t bring the tools for making pysanky in their satchels. They brought them in their memories."

Palanuk said Ukrainian pioneer women would draw motifs on the eggs with a fine-pointed stylus dipped in melted wax.

As stated by the Ukrainian Cultural Institute, 60 or more pysanky would traditionally have been completed by Holy Thursday. They would be taken to the church on Easter morning to be blessed, after which they were given away. Everyone from the youngest to the oldest received a pysanka for Easter.

One pysanka was given to the priest, several were placed on graves in the cemetery, others were exchanged by the unmarried girls with eligible men in the community and several were saved to be placed in the coffin of loved ones who might die during the year.

Several more pysanky were placed in mangers of cows to ensure safe calving and a good milk supply, and several were saved in the home for protection from fire and storms.

While the traditions of distributing pysanky have evolved over the years, the process and symbols have remained much the same.

Palanuk has a collection of pysanky dating back more than 50 years, but she couldn’t resist purchasing several eggs during the 35th annual pysanky show held recently in Dickinson. While she doesn’t consider herself to be a pysanky artist, she appreciates each egg’s beauty and symbolism.

The motifs on the eggs include the triangle as the Holy Trinity, rakes to represent prosperity, stars to symbolize God’s love toward man, the cross as the death and resurrection of Christ, wheat for a bountiful harvest and spirals to symbolize immortality.

With a piece of tin, the women formed a funnel. The funnel had a small hole on its tip to allow the wax to flow. They tied the funnel to a stick and awaited the dye. To obtain the dye, they turned to Mother Nature and blooming flowers. The wax from the beehives served as ink. It was warmed in the funnel and ready to draw the designs on the eggs. Dyeing the design into various colors allowed each color to be protected by the wax. After completion, the egg was warmed, the wax softened and wiped off. The colors were revealed. The egg had turned into a pysanka.

The first pioneer women who made pysanky were Katie Dutke, Mrs. Steve (Antonia) Kordon, Anna Yourk, Mrs. Matt (Katie) Gregory, Mrs. Sam (Katie) Ewoniuk, Mrs. Dmytro (Mary) Makaruk, Grandma Malkowski, Mrs. Steve (Olga) Barankski and Mrs. Mike (Pearl) Basaraba.

With time, the pioneer pysanky artists retired and the next generation included Julie Ewoniuk and Joyce Yourk. Their designs became more intricate and advanced with improved tools, Palank said.

A Gorham farmer who subscribed to Ukrainian Canadian newspapers saw an ad offering pysanka-making essentials. His daughter, Betty, ordered an electric stylus.

"The electric stylus revolutionized the pysanky art and attracted new artists," Palanuk said.

With additional artists, the first show was held at the Dickinson State University Gallery. Six artists agreed to enter their new creations in the show.

The show fostered a memory that Palanuk hasn’t forgotten:

"Gail Ebeltoft and I spent the day arranging the new pysanky," Palanuk said. When we finished the display, we stood back to appreciate it. What happened to our display overwhelmed us. The middle glass shelf collapsed on the shelf below, breaking six of Betty Baranko’s pysanky. How was I going to tell Betty? I knew I’d see her after church the next day. I didn’t sleep that night. I met Betty in the parking lot and told her we broke six of her treasured pysanky. She looked at me softly and said, ‘That’s part of the game. You work with fragile material, it may break.’ To this day I have the greatest respect for Betty."

While the symbols and the basic method of making pysanky have remained much the same, Palanuk has observed a progression in the eggs’ artistry.

"The symbols have stayed the same, but they have more finesse," Palanuk said.

The pysanky is among the Ukrainian traditions associated with Easter. Another is when each family brings a basket of food to church to be blessed during the Easter liturgy.

"If the weather is warm, it’s done outside on the grass," Palanuk said.

The basket is filled with Easter bread, ham, boiled eggs, macaron (a dish of macaroni and eggs) and horseradish.

"Then the family takes it home for breakfast," she said. "They’re hungry by then, they’ve had a two-hour liturgy already."

The tradition of pysanky continues to the present time, being passed down from mother to daughter, from artist to student. The UCI recently sponsored a pysanky workshop, show and sale. Those wishing to purchase a pysanky as a gift or for themselves, may visit the gift shop at the UCI at 1221 Villard St. W.