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Monday, February 23, 2015

Ukrainian Easter Eggs: Keeping a Highlands and Family Tradition Alive

Traditional Ukrainian Easter eggs; photo courtesy of Zesha Skop

Many Highlands High School graduates may remember former Fine Arts Teacher Kathy Skop showing them how to make traditional Ukrainian Easter eggs, known as pysanky. A Highlands tradition, they also were—and are—a Skop family tradition. Kathy and Michael Skop (former owners of The Storybook House on Hawthorne Ave.) taught their young children the art form—Michael's mother was born in Ukraine.

Today Kathy and Michael's daughter, Zesha Skop, continues the tradition in her home, just a few doors down from The Storybook House. Every year she has a rather open door policy for friends and family during the weekends leading up to Easter so that she may continue teaching the art, while also dishing out traditional Ukrainian dishes, including Paska bread.

Zesha's brother Damien graciously invited me to learn more about the process behind making Ukrainian Easter eggs, which some say dates back to A.D. 980. While many had to cancel because of the snow, my daughter Sophie and I put on our snow boots, marveled at the size of the snowflakes in front of The Storybook House and were warmly welcomed into Zesha's beautiful art-and-craft-filled home on Hawthorne Ave.

To begin, you must wash your egg and hands in vinegar. Next comes the design. Zesha has a thick notebook filled with traditional and modern Ukrainian egg designs for use as inspiration. Some choose to plan out their design with pencil while others dive right in with the wax.

To design a Ukrainian Easter egg, you must think backwards and in layers. The area you write on with hot wax using a stylus, called a kistka, will remain white. You then put the egg through a series of dye baths, starting with the lightest color and moving to the darkest. Between each dye bath you mark all the parts of the design you want to remain the previous color with more hot wax, using your kistka. More colors equal more dye baths and more wax, all the while moving from the lightest dye to the darkest. The process is very similar to that of the traditional printing press.

Zesha's kitchen table was covered in brown paper. On it were glass jars filled with kistkas with various sized tips, baskets filled with blocks of wax, and candles—smaller ones for heating the kistkas and taller ones for melting away all of the egg's wax once finished.

Traditional Ukrainian Easter egg-making tools, including kistkas, beeswax and candles.

From left to right, Jana Roszkowski, Kelly Perry and Zesha Skop work on their eggs.

To apply the wax you scoop up a bit of wax and then heat the kistka's head in a candle flame. Keeping your kistka at a right angle you work on your design, continually scooping and heating until you're ready for your first dye bath.

Using the little scoop in the kistka you scoop out wax, melt it over the candle flame and then use the kistka's tip to create the design on your egg.

Zesha makes all of her own dyes in Mason jars and her colors are gorgeous. The longer the egg remains in the dye, the deeper the color.

Zesha Skop makes all of her own dyes and created a color chart, complete with shading guides, for reference.

Zesha Skop stores her dyes in Mason jars. 

Once you're content with your design and your egg has gone through all the necessary dye baths, it's time to rid the egg of wax. To do so you use the side of a candle flame to melt away the wax. As soon as you see the wax glisten, you remove the egg and wipe it with a paper towel. You continue this process over and over until all the wax is removed, being mindful to not hold the egg directly over the flame, which will cause it to scorch. Slowly your design, and all your colors, will reveal.

Jen Pierson works on a rather intricate design while Damien Skop melts away his wax using a candle flame.

Next you must blow out the egg. To do so you make a small hole at the top, with a pin, and a larger hole at the bottom. Holding the egg upright you move the pin around in the bottom hole, trying to break up the yolk. Then, holding onto the egg ever-so-lightly so that it won't crack, you blow through the top hole—over and over until all liquid has been released.

It's a long, time-consuming process that requires extreme patience—eggs often crack in dye baths or break while being blown out. But when successful, the end results are stunning.

Zesha Skop's beautiful and intricate finished egg (which unfortunately cracked); photo courtesy of Zesha Skop.

Zesha Skop says she has fond memories of making eggs as a child; her parents and siblings would spend months working on them. In addition to her mom, Kathy, teaching students at Highlands her dad, Michael, taught all of his art students the age-old process.

Zesha Skop says that for many the egg stands for a seed of beauty, and the old, traditional designs and colors also hold deep meaning. In Ukraine, families spend months creating their eggs, filling baskets to keep away evil spirits and bringing them to church for blessings. 

Today many Highlands graduates, and friends and family of the Skops, find peace gathering together on a snowy, mid-winter day, taking time and patience to create beautiful works of art, on a table covered with candles, surrounded by conversation, in a kitchen filled with the smell of Ukrainian food. 

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