Decorating eggs is a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. In fact, long before the birth of Christ, ancient Egyptians and Persians often dyed eggs in bright colors and gave them to friends. At that time, the egg was a symbol of spring - the rebirth of the sun after a long winter's sleep.
But the egg took on new significance after the resurrection of Christ. It became symbolic of the Resurrection - that is, from a seemingly dead object, life emerges. And since eggs were forbidden food during Lent, they became a treat to eat on Easter Day.Spectacularly designed and colored eggs have been a part of Orthodox Easter rituals in the Ukraine since about A.D. 900.
The Pennsylvania Germans are credited with bringing the tradition of Easter egg decoration to America. In 1893, Samuel Hinkle, a pharmacist from Pennsylvania Dutch country, developed vibrant egg colors that were distributed to local townspeople. It wasn't long before Hinkle's hobby turned into a business.
Today, children across the country love the yearly ritual of gathering around a table and decorating eggs. Mom stands nervously nearby, hoping that the dye ends up only on the eggs. The kids soon disappear, leaving Mom to clean up the mess. But you can be sure that this time next year, they'll be around again, eager to decorate more eggs.
Believe it or not, there are people who make egg decorating a year-round hobby. In fact, they feel very much at home drawing and painting on their eggshell "canvases."
Some of these artists were in the spotlight about a month ago at Salt Lake's first Intermountain Egg Artistry Show. During this two-day event at the Pioneer Craft House, many visitors were exposed for the first time to some of the limitless possibilities of egg decoration.
Eleven egg artists participated in the show - eight from Utah and three from out of state. They displayed eggs that had been painted, etched, dyed, carved and decorated in a variety of ways.
Ruben M. Gallegos traveled all the way from Albuquerque, N.M., to show off his impressive hand-painted miniature masterpieces. For the most part, his subject matter focused on his Indian/Spanish heritage. He says that he is the only eggshell artist in the world who concentrates on this imagery.
Gallegos not only paints eggs but sculpts Kachina dolls out of clay, fires and paints them. He then adds some of hispainted eggs to these sculptures.
Also attracting attention were egg masterpieces by Nina M. Watson of Sunnyvale, Calif. This innovative art ist takes scenes of Russian fairy tales and Ukrainian folk tales and draws them on her eggs. Although she uses the wax resist method, she says her eggs cannot be classified as Ukrainian because they are scenes of people and not traditional shapes and symbols.
Each egg design is a unique creation. Watson says she works on inspiration and can't ever do one exactly the same again. She found that out when someone wanted a copy of her depiction of the clown, Petrushka.
Watson was excited when she said that a museum in Salzburg, Austria, is purchasing a set of four of her dyed eggs for permanent display there. The eggs will show scenes from events centering around the Nativity, but the figures will be dressed in Russian costumes.
Janet Harvey of Kaysville uses a dental drill to create a delicate filigree of patterns on her carved eggshells.
Rather than sticking to ancient symbolism, however, she enjoys developing her own design. She says it is deeply satisfying to watch the engraved patterns develop on the fragile surfaces and know that when the egg is finished, there is not another like it in the entire world.
West Valley art designer Oleta Kingery displayed some of her beautiful Ukrainian eggs. They are called "pysanky"; the root of that word is "pysaty," Ukrainian for "to write."
Kingery explained that it is an ancient process where the artist must hold rigidly to dozens of traditional symbols and colors. For example, flowers mean love, charity and goodwill; pine needles mean a long life, health and eternal life; the fish is the symbol for Christ and sacrifice; and wheat means good health and good harvest.
To begin the decorating process, Kingery takes a bare egg and lightly sketches on it with a pencil. She then applies thin lines of beeswax using a kistka (an etching pen with a funnel). Next, she dips the egg into a light-colored dye. After each color is added, she blocks off areas with wax, thus preserving that color. Then she dips the egg into a darker color. This process continues until the darkest color - often traditional black - is used.
"The next step is the most exciting of all," Kingery said. By holding the egg over a candle, she heats the wax and wipes it off the egg's surface. It is then that "all those designs and colors you've worked so long on begin to appear."
She said that Ukrainian Easter eggs, traditionally left whole and raw, are treasured not only for their color and beauty, but because the symbols can tell stories of a person's life. However, some of her eggs are not covered with those symbols, but with fanciful butterflies.
"Well, once in a while I need a break from the Ukrainian designs," she said.
Kingery said that she learned her egg decorating techniques from Jean Godfrey, an artist who has decorated eggs using the wax resist method for 30 years.
Godfrey first learned the technique from a former sister-in-law. But this method was rather primitive compared to pysanky. In wasn't until browsing through a copy of the April 1972, National Geographic that Godfrey came across an eight-page spread on Ukrainian Easter egg decorating. Enthralled, she was determined to learn the technique.
She eventually made contact with Luba Perchyshyn, whose colorful eggs appeared in the magazine. It wasn't long before Perchyshyn was teaching Godfrey through correspondence and "lengthy telephone calls."
Godfrey moved to Utah 11 years ago and found that no one was teaching the Ukrainian wax-resist method. So she started teaching classes in several local school districts and at Brigham Young University. She has been a member of the faculty at Pioneer Craft House for seven years.
During that time, she has taught pysanky to more than 2,000 students. And she says that she knows of about 150 of them who are still actively involved in this art form. In fact, some of her former students are teaching it.
People across the country are finding that giving a decorated egg to a friend or relative is a true "eggspression" of love. It not only adds to the beauty of a home but is meant to be cherished.