Artist is passing on the art of pysanky
Ginette Simpson of New Alexandria stared intently at an egg under the light of a desk lamp at Rizzo's Malabar Inn.
While families enjoyed the annual Feast of St. Joseph dinner, Simpson used wax to draw on the egg before dropping it into yellow dye.
Among the colorful flowers, geometric patterns and crosses she drew, a small heart will be hidden somewhere to honor her mother.
Stella Nalevanko taught her daughter how to design the Ukrainian eggs, called pysanky, a tradition passed on from mother to daughter for decades.
“Now we joke that it went from mother to daughter to Rizzi's nephew,” she said.
Simpson is passing on the art to 12-year-old Dominic DeFabo, whose uncle and father are co-owners of the restaurant on Route 119 in Crabtree, where Simpson demonstrates her art every year.
“He's very patient,” Simpson said. “Of all the children, he's the most patient and took to it right away.”
The restaurant's owners first invited Simpson and her mother to the feast in 2001 with other local artisans, but Nalevanko was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and they could not attend.
After her mother passed away, Simpson was wary of making any more eggs until she found out her church was in dire need of funds.
The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church was down to its last $600 and Simpson realized the pysanky could help.
“That was the fire that got me back to demonstrations,” she said.
Her father, Andy Nalevanko, had to bring her something that first year, 2005, and decided to stay for the rest of the evening. He returned every year until he passed away in 2009.
With an empty chair at her table, the DeFabos' children became fascinated with Simpson's artwork -- Dominic more than any of the other cousins.
“She's just a kind and wonderful person for letting me do this,” Dominic DeFabo said. “I'm so happy that we do this.”
His uncle Rizzi said Dominic is very creative and talented.
“He was so intrigued by it,” Rizzi DeFabo said. “If somebody doesn't learn these things, it's just going to die out.”
Simpson draws guidelines on the egg shell then pencils in the design before using a small heat gun to melt the wax for its beginnings in the lightest color of a special Ukrainian dye.
Traditional symbols like flowers for love, ladders for strength, fish for sacrifice and rams for leadership are a part of Simpson's designs as well as her own original creations.
Her designs are so well-regarded that some of the eggs have been added to a collection at the Library of Congress.
“The Ukrainians protected the art,” she said. “If anybody copies my designs, it's a compliment to me.”
Ranging from $20 to $100, the eggs have garnered enough money during the Easter season to pay the church's utility bills and insurance for the following year.
Simpson typically sells most of the 100 eggs she makes each year during the Italian feast weekend.
“It's become our church's annual egg sale; people just know that they'll find me here,” she said.
Like 8-year-old Alexis Beard whose aunt, Cindy Coleman of Delmont, bought her one of the eggs with purple and green accents.
“They're so intricate,” Coleman said before Alexis agreed she liked the colors on the shells.
As more and more of the egg's shell is covered with wax, darker colors of dye are used over the covered lighter portions.
The artisan obsessively washes her hands to remove oil that clogs the pores of the egg and blocks the dye.
“I'm like a surgeon working in my studio” during the process, which can take from two hours for the simplest design up to 12 hours for the most intricate, Simpson said.
When the pattern is completely finished, the egg is covered in wax.
“It's exciting to take that first sweep with a cloth and expose all the details,” she said.
Two holes are made on the ends of the shells where the egg is blown out before Simpson adds coats of shellac to preserve the design.
Dominic DeFabo said he loves making all the patterns.
“They're all way too gorgeous for me to pick a favorite,” he said.
Simpson, who retired as postmaster at Hostetter in August, said this season was less rushed because she had extra time and will still enjoy the other events where she sells the eggs, including one with the Latrobe Art Club, and is considering developing a class to teach others.
A day will soon be set aside to spend with her new apprentice as well.
Dominic DeFabo said he is thankful the feast gave him the opportunity to meet Simpson.
“I'm so happy that we do this,” he said. “It's a big part of my family.”
To buy one of the pysanky eggs and support the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukranian Catholic Church in New Alexandria, contact Ginette Simpson at 724-244-5272.
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.