An event colored by culture

Tradition: A workshop celebrates the intricate craft of creating Ukrainian Easter eggs.

March 31, 2002|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

Maureen O'Neill was a 10-year-old in Youngstown, Ohio, when she made her first Ukrainian Easter egg by drawing a geometric design in wax on an egg and dipping it into richly colored dyes. Every Easter since then the 33-year-old Hampden resident yearned to make the labor-intensive eggs again, but was unable to find someone to teach her.

"Every year I thought there's got to be some church where little old ladies are sitting there doing Ukrainian Easter eggs," she said.

On Saturday, O'Neill sat in a Highlandtown storefront, painstakingly dotting designs on a white egg with melted beeswax, and dipping the egg again and again into jars of brilliant red, yellow and orange liquid. The little old church ladies were nowhere in sight, but she was content.

"I'm totally happy," said O'Neill, who runs a summer Shakespeare camp in Baltimore. "This is my Easter."

In these days of purple marshmallow Peeps and bonnet-free Easter Sundays, many found comfort in the tradition of the process. While children across the country spent the day coloring, hiding, hunting and eating Easter eggs, about 50 children and adults were learning about a centuries-old Easter tradition at a free workshop held at the Creative Alliance yesterday.

"We made a family decision to either go Easter egg hunting or go here," said Ramona Lindsay, who sat drawing on an egg with a copper and wooden stylus known as a kistka as her two children Megan, 8, and Bobby, 11 worked beside her.

The Ukrainian egg decorating, known as pysanky, won out because, according to Bobby, "We've done the Easter egg hunt so many times we wanted to try something new."

The eggs - which can take anywhere from an hour to 40 hours to decorate - were traditionally made by women and given to family and friends as gifts, according to Rosale Hand of Canton, a pysanky instructor of Ukrainian descent. A few eggs, however, always remained at home.

"It was considered good luck to have one of these eggs - to keep the home safe and healthy," she said.

Each line, no matter how small, has meaning, said Roman Nishchuk, a professional pysanky artist from Baltimore on hand at the workshop to offer advice about the process and to sell his gleaming, delicate black, scarlet and orange Ukrainian eggs. "Dots mean Jesus' mother is crying," he said. "Flowers mean love."

The workshop at the Creative Alliance grew out of a desire by the nonprofit organization's staff to hold an Easter event that recognized a cultural tradition of the Highlandtown neighborhood, which has long been home to people of Greek, Polish and Ukrainian descent, said Megan O'Brien, a volunteer instructor at the event yesterday.

After working with the wax and uncooked white eggs at tables, participants brought their eggs to a dye station to dip them, first in light colors, then in dark. When the process was complete, the wax that had been applied was melted off over a candle flame.

"It's hypnotic," said Linda Ovitt of Overlea.

Ovitt spent the afternoon decorating an egg with a bird on it, a symbol of fulfilled wishes.

When she was done, she was happy with the result, but not entirely fulfilled. Looking to Nishchuk's display of ornate eggs and then back to her own more folksy creation, she explained, "I wanted mine to look like his."

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