Easter is around the corner, and if you’re looking for some decoration inspiration, consider Pysanky! Pysanky, the plural of pysanka, is a Ukrainian egg craft, where intricate designs are achieved by repeatedly applying wax in intricate patterns and dipping the eggs in dye baths. At the end of the process, the wax is removed, traditionally over a candle flame.
A few linguistic notes: the root word of psyanky is “pysaty” meaning to write or inscribe, and as such it’s typical to describe the process of decorating pysanky as “writing” them.1
Pysanka and Pysanky are pronounced “PIH-sahn-kah” and “pih-sahn-KIH”
Historically, geometric, celestial, religious, or motifs from the natural world are written on the egg. Designs were typically shared among families and broader regional groups, and patterns or colors were deployed strategically to invoke protection, celebrate love, or solicit good luck.2 While many still focus on adhering to traditional design sensibilities when writing pysanky, some incorporate modern imagery.3
Wheeling, and the Ohio Valley more broadly, has a sizable Ukrainian American population. Ukrainians first started arriving in Wheeling in the late 1800s. They, like other immigrant groups, were attracted to the prosperity and opportunity in Wheeling’s manufacturing sectors.4
After worshiping at St. Ladislaus, the Polish Catholic Church for a number of years, built their own parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Yes, the church that makes delicious pirohy (pierogi).
Hoping to find someone versed in pysanky, we stopped by for lunch at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. There, we found Gemma Twaddle, who was gracious enough to take a break and chat about her Pysanky practice in-between serving up delicious food.
Writing pysanky isn’t something that Gemma grew up with; she first took a class around the time she joined the parish in Wheeling. She didn’t get a chance to write too many eggs at first, because she was busy raising her family as well as teaching full time. Eventually, she was able to sit down and create some beautiful eggs. She even taught her daughter the art form, as well.
“We have a book with different designs and symbols, and we’ve also just done our own [designs]. My daughter made her own design and it’s still special– we still have it.”
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She’s also taught classes on pysanky, teaching children of Wheeling Central Catholic Elementary the art form in a one-and-half-hour class. “They were able to do a simple design, one step at a time.” More intricate designs, however, do take longer. The reward is worth it, as eggs can last from year to year. She has some, like the one her daughter designed, that are at least 30 years old. Those that aren’t kept for display around their kitchen table are given away as seasonal gifts.
Whether you celebrate Easter or not, you can certainly appreciate this beautiful, centuries-old art form. If you’d like to make your pysanky eggs, you’re in luck! Wheeling resident Anna Kueberth has been teaching people how to make pysanky for years. For groups of six or more, she will provide all of the materials and guidance necessary for creating your very own pysanky. Anna can be contacted via email. Classes must be scheduled in advance. You can also visit learnpysanky.com to learn pysanky basics, traditions associated with the pysanky, and more!
• Kate Wietor is currently studying Architectural History and Historic Preservation at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. She spent one glorious year in Wheeling serving as the 2021-22 AmeriCorps member at Wheeling Heritage. Since moving back to Virginia, she’s still looking for an antique store that rivals Sibs.