Zoya Stashuk: My task is to revive ancient pysankas
Everyone should paint a pysanka before the Great Holiday, Easter, because this is a kind of sublimation and filling oneself with the symbolic contents of the soul on the eve of the Jesus Resurrection. But there are people for whom creating pysanksas has become their life-works, they have reproduced patterns of thousands of pysankas from ancient prints and pass this knowledge to their successors. Zoya Stashuk from Kiev belongs to them. We met in the museum of a famous Ukrainian poet Pavlo Tychina where the artist was conducting a usual master class in pysanka making for all the interested people.
Can you say why pysankas are painted exactly before Easter?
(laughing) As for me I make them all the year round. But in general this custom goes back to the pre-Christian times. An egg serves as a symbol of life, spring, wakening, as a symbol of Christ for Easter.
When people were transferring to Christianity from pagan religion all the rites connected with spring were smoothly accepted by Christianity. Pysankas were painted in every village and this was said to be pagan art. In the cities people were not likely to make pysankas…
The sacral content of pysanka has been preserved in our country until the present time and it is lost in the other countries. The other day I visited an exhibition at which artists from Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria showed their works but on their pysankas the ancient symbols are already absent. The artists say they these symbols are difficult to reproduce and it is easier for them to make ornaments with nails, so that pysankas look like those made in Lemkivshchyna (ethnic territory in the Western Carpathians inhabited by Lemky – an ethnic Ukrainian group of people) the artists just make jerky movements by the needles toward themselves, keep dipping the needles into wax and don’t even place the eggs into dye. They simply paint the egg over with wax adding special coloring agents into it. So they make spots with this colored wax on the egg shells and get a kind of pysanka that way.
Ludmila from Slovakia has a collection of pysankas at home with more than 800 items in it, so she bought real pysankas from me with great pleasure. She is saying they don’t have the art of this quality at home because it is difficult. They don’t do it this way to do everything quickly. And the Ukrainian people have managed to preserve the sacral content of pysanka ornaments.
Even the yolk and the white inside the egg are the symbols of life. There are different superimposing signs and symbols: they include the guardian signs, the thoughts of a person working at a pysanka, a candle with which the space around the artist is purified. And the last component here is the beeswax, and a bee is considered as a saint fly which takes a part of the Sun and brings it to people as wax.
Plus the fact that some time ago natural dyes were used. Some herbs were collected purposely, they were sanctified on the Savior day; the water was taken from three different springs and no one was talking while bringing it home; all the herbs were boiled and holy water was added to the mixture. Nothing was wasted from these preparation stages. People put on clean clothes and most of them started to make pysankas on Maundy Thursday when everything in the house was cleaned and the soul was pure. At those times people were fastening more often. So as a result this wonder of a pysanka full of energy was created into which women put all the wishes for their families.
Did men use to make pysankas in the old days?
Yes, they made pysankas but not so many of them, and only in Ternopol and Khmelnitsky regions this custom was spread among men. I have boys in my studio who make pysankas and do this very well. I observe this and do not see any difference.
You were speaking about a serious preparation process for making pysankas, do you think anyone follows it nowadays?
No. Such component as preparation of dyes has disappeared. Well modern artists try to make natural dyes and some of them even use them but the dyes are hardly ever sanctified and such thing as thunder candle is not likely to be used.
The use of natural dyes as a technical approach is possible nowadays, their coloring effect is good. But this procedure is a very complicated one. Instead, aniline came into use as soon as it was invented in the 19th century because it is easy to work with. The paint dissolves quickly in a jar with water and the colors it gives are very bright (laughs).
They say that after the consecration a pysanka should be kept in the house for the entire year. But sometimes it happens a pysanka is broken or smashed; what then can be done to it because it is not allowed to throw pysankas out?
In accordance with legends and with what old books say such pysanka needs to be broken into very small pieces and let go into flowing water because witches like pysankas very much knowing how much energy they contain. They know that a shell in a broken pysanka is not a whole any more so they can add their negative energy to it. So for them not to be able to draw any water by this broken shell and consequently not to put any evil spell upon somebody the shell should be crushed into small pieces.
Is it right that if a pysanka breaks it is as if it has taken some negative energy?
Well I think so, too. Pysankas are really very rich in energy and I saw it myself. Somewhere around 1997 we were having an exhibition in the Nature House. One day a bioenergetics specialist came to us with a lot of special rotating devices. So those devices were rotating so fast they could jump out of his hands. He was very surprised; his mouth fell wide open and it was difficult for him to control himself. This person was running around the place until he found some pysanka and rushed to it. “Well, this is the strongest one. What does it mean?” he asks us. And that pysanka was really strange, it had only yellow lines on it arranged as a kind of stairs and drawn in zigzags — nothing else. So that person stated that this pysanka was the strongest one and added to it that there were a lot of energy fields around and it was all incredible. That is why he asked us how we were able to stand all that because he himself turned red. But we replied we got used to it (laughing). It may be strange but pysankas do concentrate very strong energy.
Is the art of making pysankas more widespread in large cities than in villages now, speaking for example about the East and the Center of Ukraine?
It is true in part of the villages because with them it is as if the thread has been torn. Those old women who ornamented pysankas passed away long ago. And starting from 1220th both making pysankas and even paining eggs were strictly forbidden. I can remember myself the times we brought painted eggs to school when schoolchildren. But children were forbidden to take them to school because if you did it you then was called to the meeting of the young communist body and they would investigate your case and make you go home with a notice to your mom saying you were so bad a person. It was strictly forbidden. And indeed my mother didn’t make any pysankas though she was born in Poltava region. And as for me I didn’t know a thing about their existence.
I first saw pysankas in the Museum of Ukrainian decorative art in the Lavra and I liked them very much. I understood I was able to learn making them when I brought my children to the studio where this group had just been opened. So I decided with enthusiasm I didn’t need any knowledge of technical sciences when I can quietly occupy myself with this interesting work at home.
Could you tell me when you started to make pysankas and whether you remember the first one you ornamented?
I surely remember it. (laughing) Starting from 1992 I’ve been occupied exclusively in the pysanka business and all this time I’ve been happy, glad and satisfied.
The main thing about making a pysanka is to understand its volume and how to divide it for ornament, well – to see the base for it. And as I am very good at technical drawing and it was my favorite subject at school it is very easy for me to understand how to draw up these complicated ornaments.
Having learned and reproduced the ornaments of about 5 thousand traditional pysankas I allow myself to create original works now and to join signs in the ornaments considering all of them positive.
Once a man asked me in a low voice “Could you make a pysanka for me with a humorous inscription “to my dear mother-in-law”?” I said he was addressing a wrong person because pysankas have only positive content and I cannot help it. (laughing)
Can you tell me where it is possible to buy dyes and a pysachok for making pysankas? It seems these things are not usually sold in the shops.
Dyes are made by the Lviv factory and there they are packed up into small packages. Some time ago it was possible to buy them in any household shop because people used to paint wool with them. But nowadays there are no problems with wool: you can find a lot of different kinds in any shop, you need just buy it and start knitting. And where else can people use aniline dyes? Practically nowhere. So they are not available in shops any more. These dyes come to us – artists making pysankas – directly from the factory. I order them myself and any person can buy them at the master classes.
Also, once we were brought a pysachok from Canada. We took a look at it and saw it was of a very good quality. So there is a person who makes such instruments taking that pysachok as a model. Then they are given to us and we distribute them. These instruments are practically absent in shops because they are not the kind of goods to sell out quickly. The area of their use is very narrow.
There is little or no literature in ornamenting pysankas. One gets an impression it is a secret topic…
It is necessary to revive the old prints. There is a wonderful album of M. Kulzhynsky issued in Moscow and named «Description of the collection of national pysankas». 2219 pysankas are shown there, so it takes just to republish this album. It is dated 1899, so it is clear that the language of this album can be understandable not for everyone, the paper size (А-3) is not practical, but the total number of these albums is very small: they are available in the Scientific Library of Kiev Mohylyanska Academy, in the Historical Library of the Lavra and in Lviv. Literally – there are only several copies of Kulzhynsky book. But it contains unique ancient pysankas.
So it means pysankas were investigated yet at the time?
Well, it was quite a history. There was a landlady Kateryna Skarzhynska in Kruglyk village. She had a lot of money and liked national art. She created a private museum of national handicrafts and she took a particular interest in pysankas. She got so enthusiastic as to invite several members of Geographic Society to work for her. Fedorov and Kulzhynsky were among them. They were very serious people. They were collecting pysankas for 10 years on a systematic ground through priests and eparchies, they organized special ethnographic search expeditions, they sent their findings by mail – so they used every opportunity to collect pysankas. Eventually they collected three thousand and a half of different specimens in 10 years. Later the clever landlady understood that the pysanka is a fragile thing and can easily be broken. So she assigned money for the publication and appointed Kulzhynsky the chief editor of the album. He worked at the classification and made a hystoric description of the collection. He processed all the available ethnographic material and performed the classification of pysankas in accordance with the signs, symbols and regions (17 provinces were represented); later he divided each province into cities and villages, numbered and registered all of them. Well, this can be called a kind of gold-bearing Klondike, (very rich deposits of something or a source of great welfare – auth.) for the modern art of making pysankas. All the people familiar with the album use the information from it.
When Oksana Bilous (a famous Kiev pysankar – auth.) and me copied this album for the first time and exhibited these pysankas everyone was gasping with surprise because 2219 pysankas were hanging around and they were pleasant to look at. We just divided the album in two halves to have an equal share of the pictures with pysankas for copying. Connoisseurs of fine art admired it. At that moment we understood this work needs to be continued.
Later there was an edition of Myron Corduba. This edition contained pysankas from Galich Volhyhia and was dated 1895. 156 pysankas are described there. By the way, those red pysankas in a basket which are exhibited over there were copied from the Corduba by my student Hannuska.
I consider the revival of such collections of pysankas and popularization of them to be my task.
Kateryna Kachur was talking to the artist