Workshop uses eggs as canvas

Baltimore-trained artist shares Ukrainian painting craft during hands-on session

March 12, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,sun reporter

Baltimore-trained artist Nestor Topchy put a new spin on Easter eggs at a workshop yesterday that brought participants ranging from children to grandmothers to the Johns Hopkins University's Evergreen House.

The eggs were not exclusively the province of Easter, however, but the Ukrainian decorated sort.

Topchy had some wooden ones adorned with geometric patterns hanging from his Byzantine gold-leaf icon paintings on display there.

Now a resident of Houston, Topchy was a child when he learned pysanky, the ancient egg-painting craft, from his mother -- and both of them shared their knowledge with about 30 people at Evergreen.

"Everybody's really into the creative act," Topchy said. "This tradition is older than memory, and it's richer than anyone's mind. It's a reminder to not forget the achievements of all our ancestors."

The hands-on session brought to life the works in an exhibit that opened Wednesday at the North Baltimore mansion. It features pieces by five graduates of the Maryland Institute College of Art who benefited from the Evergreen House Foundation's annual scholarship program.

Topchy (Class of 1985) was joined by two of the others, sculptural decorative artist Lauren Ross (1993) and fiber artist Colleen Ostrander (1995), in the egg-decorating workshop.

"It's just the perfect thing. I can imagine the Garrett family being glad that this was happening," Ostrander said of the mansion's long-ago residents, who were among Baltimore's foremost patrons of the arts.

Crouched over circular tables, the artists worked with participants who sketched beeswax designs on their raw eggs and repeatedly submerged them in baths of dye. Participants clutched a tool known as a kistka to write on the eggs with hot wax, which protects the white surface and reveals other colors through layers of dyeing. They started with light yellow dyes and ended with black.

The yolks of the uncooked eggs usually dry out eventually. The dye wouldn't properly cling to a cooked shell, said the artist's mother, Nora Topchy of Woodlawn.

"The wax seals the egg," Nestor Topchy said. "Each time, you cover what you want to preserve and dye it again."

With Easter four weeks away, it was a timely event. Ukrainian churches display the ornate eggs for blessing during Easter services and sell them at bazaars and festivals.

Yet the timeworn practice predates Christianity. The symbols on the eggs -- whether natural scenes, religious images or angular shapes -- vary among regions of Ukraine. The patterns resemble the cross-stitch panels embroidered on the Ukrainian blouses worn by Nestor and Nora Topchy.

The Italianate mansion on North Charles Street showcased myriad cultures. Attendees practiced the Ukrainian craft in a Russian folk art-inspired theater designed by avant-garde artist Leon Bakst.

Ross gave a private tour of her mixed-media installation in the dining room downstairs. She created tongue-and-cheek breakfast table settings for the Eight Immortals featured in the Chinese Daoist paintings that grace the room's walls.

Topchy's works embody that range of influences. His images of the Virgin Mary and Christ child, the Buddha and wild beasts hang in the mansion's gallery.

Topchy and his Ukrainian-Argentine wife, Mariana Lemesoff, have taught their 9-year-old daughter the ancestral craft. Minerva Topchy said her dad taught her a trick: move the egg, not the wand, when painting it with wax. The lines are steadier that way.

"It's actually a maternal tradition," Lemesoff said. "Mothers teach their daughters. There's a very feminine element related to the egg."

Two friends from Baltimore's Park School, Josie Verchomin and Lexi Andrea, both 12, experimented with abstract scribbles and flames on their eggs.

Minerva passed on her skills to the other children, and even the professional artists, at Evergreen.

"It makes me feel happy, because I'm a little one teaching someone big," Minerva said.

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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