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Uniontown woman knows eggs-zactly how to do it

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By Laura Szepesi
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
 

When it comes to crafting the perfect pysanky, Bonnie Balas knows eggs-zactly what to do.

The Uniontown resident learned the art by accident, but her Carpatho-Rusyn heritage was a talisman. The first time Balas picked up an egg and sketched on it with wax, it was like coming home.

Afterwards, she discovered that her grandmother had learned the Eastern European custom as a young woman.

"Grandma asked me to make a design for her and was really excited when she saw how I could draw," Balas remembered. "All along, I could have learned (pysanky) firsthand and I never even knew it!"

Balas was drawn into drawing pysanky after a co-worker complimented her on her artistic creativity. At the time, she was working as a teacher at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church in Uniontown (it closed in 1998).

Eastern European

She had always admired pysanky eggs, which are an Eastern European -- mainly Ukrainian -- custom. Balas took a class at the YMCA, where she learned the traditional method of applying designs in layered wax and dyeing the eggs multiple times -- an art that dates back thousands of years.

After the eggs are dyed and dried, their insides are carefully removed. The artist delicately pokes a small hole on each end and -- oh, so carefully -- pumps or blows out the whites and yolk.

The fragile eggs can easily crack, ruining many hours of precious work. "We always lose a few each year," said Balas.

Ancient Ukrainians believed pysanky -- pronounced "p-sunky" -- were good luck charms against the world's evils.

Today they are usually regarded as treasured Easter decorations. Hobbyists and artists gather worldwide in spring to hone their craft, always seeking to create the ultimate egg.

Want to learn how?

Balas teaches pysanky classes each Lenten season at her home parish, St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church in Uniontown. She got talked into the job 30 years ago by the Rev. Eugene Yackanich, who was then pastor.

She was surprised how many local people were interested in learning pysanky. Three decades later, the egg-lovers are still going strong. This year's class, which finished recently, numbered about 35 from all over the local area.

"Every year we come up with different designs," said Balas, who is also a teacher for Albert Gallatin School District.

One of the newer designs are nature eggs, which look like brown eggs with fancy designs on them. "We only use natural things to dye them, such as onion skins," Balas said. The whites and yolks stay inside the natural pysanky, eventually drying into a small, hard ball. If shaken, the aged eggs sound like a rattle.

Annual eggstravaganza

Balas said she never gets tired of pysanky. This season she made 14 dozen, many of which were displayed or sold at the church's annual Easter Eggstravaganza on March 26. The popular event features pysanky demonstrators, some from as far away as Eastern Europe.

Pysanky of all sizes -- from teeny robin eggs to large ostrich eggs -- are available as well as many other Easter crafts. Of course, there is food, too, most of it Carpatho-Rusyn (Eastern European) in flavor.

This year's pysanky class was a mix of new and "the regulars," Balas said. "Everyone just loves doing it. It's a great way to get together and get into slow motion."

Tina Miller of Masontown agrees. "It's very therapeutic and relaxing," said Miller, who works for Albert Gallatin School District.

Bernadette Pompura of Lemont Furnace enjoys creating Easter scenes on her pysanky -- images of spring birds and Easter bunnies, to name a few. "It's very rewarding when you get to see what you've done with your own two hands," said Pompura. Her classmates call her the "cake lady," a tribute to her many years as a cake decorator for Judy Jean Bakery in Uniontown.

As Easter 2012 approaches, the eggs, wax and rainbow-hued dyes have been put away until next spring.

But Balas will stay busy. She's already thinking about next year's designs for pysanky -- the incredible yet inedible egg!

The origin of pysanky

Easter eggs evoke images of the lilacs and yellows and pinks of spring -- a rebirth after the deep freeze of winter.

Take it a step further and one encounters pysanky, intricately decorated orbs best described as jeweled eggs -- without the actual jewels. Each is a miniature work of art.

These beautiful Easter symbols hail from Easter Europe and date back thousands of years.

Although many Eastern European countries dye the brilliantly colored eggs, their origin is traced directly to the Ukraine. Now a free country, the Ukraine was once part of the Soviet Union. It lies southwest of Russia and northeast of Romania.

5,000-Year History

Many pysanky designs began with the pagan Trypillian culture of ancient Ukraine, dating back to 3,000 B.C. The Trypillians flourished at the same time that the Egyptians built the pyramids. Common pysanky designs -- stars, suns, dots, wheat, crosses, fish, triangles -- eventually blended with Christianity when the Ukraine was converted around 1,000 A.D.

In pagan times, people worshiped many things, including the elements -- such as the sun. Ukrainian eggs were part of ceremonial worship. When broken, the egg yolk represented the sun; the egg whites, the moon.

Eggs have played a role in spring ceremonies throughout the world since ancient times. Just as an egg hatches a living chick, spring is a rebirth of the earth after a dismal, dormant winter.

So vital were eggs to life that ancient Ukrainians viewed pysanky as a talisman -- a good luck charm against evil in a time when people went through life fearful of many things.

Pysanky: 'To Write'

Pysanky is taken from a Ukrainian phrase meaning "to write". Although many pysanky artists today sketch modern images, traditional pysanky eggs convey hidden messages.

The symbols were passed down through the centuries and generations from mother to daughter. In old times, only women could make pysanky and only alone at night. No one was permitted to see pysanky being made because they were believed to work magic against evil.

Today, men and women create the Easter treasures even in broad daylight. Many of the eggs' symbols are word pictures that express feelings such as love, happiness and sorrow.

As Christianity overtook paganism, the meaning of many pysanky designs shifted to the religious.

For example, the cross, which represented the four cardinal directions -- north, south, east and west -- now stressed Jesus Christ's suffering. The sun, once worshipped, now signified the son of God. And triangles, once representing the elements of earth, air and fire, became the Holy Trinity.

Whether or not today's pysanky artists view their craft as religious, one thing is certain: they are creating tiny treasures with a long, long history.

 

 
 


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