Eggs provide canvas for ancient art form
Melodie Lauer speaks a language few understand.
But what she does within that language all admire.
Lauer is an artist or, as she says, "a dabbler." She admits she bores easily and often shifts from one project to the next to shake the humdrums.
Often she’s found in the Brundidge Piggly Wiggly pushing around a buggy of eggs or, at times, peeking out the window of her home on Pine Street in anticipation of the mailman’s arrival with her order of ostrich eggs from Arizona.
The eggs are the canvas on which Lauer creates her art, known as pysanky.
Archeologists discovered ceramic pysanky in Ukraine dating back to 1200 B.C. They have linked pysanky designs to those of Egyptian ceramics created in 1500 B.C. and to the symbolism of the Trypillian culture in Ukraine of 3000 B.C.
Pysanky is an ancient art form gaining popularity in America and is making its way into the South.
Lauer laughingly said pysanky is not an often-used word in the Southern dialect. However, it is a word familiar to her and to the many others who appreciate and admire her artwork.
Pysanky is actually an egg that is decorated using a wax-resistant method.
"It’s much the same process as used to decorate traditional Easter eggs," she explained. "You put the dye in a cup of water, add vinegar and dye the eggs."
But it’s not as simple as Lauer makes it sound. Pysanky is actually a labor-intensive process involving drawing designs, many of them intricate, with a stylus and beeswax.
"What you do is draw on the egg with the stylus and wax anything that you don’t want colored and then dye the egg beginning with the lightest color and working toward the darkest," Lauer said. "What you want to be one color, you cover with wax."
Lauer compared the process to drawing on an egg with a crayon and then dipping it into dye.
When that is done, the dye will not absorb into the shell beneath the crayon marks so, when you take the egg out of the dye, a pattern remains on the egg.
"The egg is placed in several dye baths and more wax is applied after each bath," Lauer continued. "At the end of the process, the wax is melted off and you have the pattern. I use a candle to melt the wax. You can’t use water on the eggs because the dye is water-based and will come off. I coat the finished egg with polyurethane to protect it and it also gives the egg additional strength."
Lauer said ostrich eggs are a bit more durable than other eggs and she likes working with them; but the surface is almost like shellac and has to be scrubbed with vinegar "for what seems like hours" before they can be dyed.
"I really like working with chicken eggs, but I don’t blow out the eggs before I color them because that would leave them so fragile," she said. "After I complete the dying process, I take a hat pin and poke a hole in each end and blow them out. The ostrich and goose eggs come blown out."
The patterns Lauer uses are primarily Christian symbols as are used on most all pysanky.
"The sun, of course, symbolizes the Son of God, the ladder represents the heavens, the circle represents everlasting life and so on," she said.
Other symbols often used are the cross, stars, wheat, fir tree and the unending line, which denotes the cyclical nature of life.
Straight lines and geometrical shapes give pysanky a stylized look. Lauer pencils in the lines in quarters and even sixths for spacing, but most of her artwork is done freehand.
"I just do what the mood strikes me," she said.
Most of Lauer’s eggs are decorated in the Ukrainian-style, but she also likes the Trypillian-style that is much like the Native American style of drawing. The Trypillian-style is characterized by the use of three colors – brown, black and red.
"For that style, I like to use brown eggs," she said. "That way I only have to apply red and black dyes."
Lauer has been creating egg art for nearly 10 years, and has designed and dyed more than 120 chicken eggs.
"I’ve only started doing ostrich and goose eggs in the last few years," she said. "I’ve done probably five ostrich eggs and four goose eggs. It takes a lot of patience and a steady hand to create pysanky."
And a lot of time.
Because the ostrich eggs require so much pre-dye cleaning, Lauer estimated she has about 30 hours in those eggs.
"Chicken eggs I can do in about eight hours," she said.
"Sometimes, you break one and often after you have spent a lot of time designing and dying it," she said. "I paint and pray."
Lauer said it’s not a pleasant feeling to see fragments of a beautifully-dyed pysanky on the floor and she has seen more than her share.
"I have a hanger for displaying some of the eggs and most of them I put in a large bowl, which seems like a safer keeping place," she remarked. "Once I had about 25 or 30 pysanky in a bowl on the table. I picked up the bowl and it just shattered. Every one of the eggs broke."
And, what did Lauer do?
"I cleaned it all up," she said, laughing.
For Lauer, pysanky is a hobby. Many of her eggs she gives away, some she keeps to enjoy and a few she sells.
"I enjoy the artwork," she said. "But I do get bored and have to move on to something else. Pysanky is my project for Lent. But I enjoy the eggs all year long."
At Christmastime, the pysanky, with their circles and fir trees and suns and stars, tell the story of that night so long ago when a Baby was born in Bethlehem – the Christ Child who came so man could have life-everlasting.
What a wonderful story told on something as simple as a chicken egg.
Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.