Eggs to keep


Glenwood woman who learned her fragile art in 1960s is helping to keep the ancient craft alive

March 22, 2009|By Janene Holzberg | Janene Holzberg,Special to The Baltimore Sun

While many people believe the stock market controls the fate of the world these days, Ukrainians once attributed that power to elaborately decorated Easter eggs.

The only thing saving Earth from certain destruction by an angry serpent chained to a cliff in the Carpathian Mountains was the annual creation of these ovoid masterpieces - called pysanky - to placate the creature, or so goes the popular legend.

With jewel-tone dyes, beeswax and a steady hand, Sandy Stern is helping to keep the ancient craft - if not civilization - alive.

Stern will demonstrate how the eggs are created at the Glenwood branch of the Howard County Library on Wednesday.

Growing up in Minnesota, where there was a large Ukrainian population, the Glenwood resident was in high school in the late 1960s when she saw an artist at a store making pysanky.

The word comes from pysaty, which means "to write."

Though Stern is not Ukrainian, the art captured her imagination, she said. Over four decades, she has made about 15 dozen eggs and has given many away.

"It's a funny thing - I don't do regular Easter eggs, though," Stern said with a chuckle, referring to the familiar process of dipping hard-boiled eggs into dyes made with food coloring.

Instead, she creates fantastically detailed and vibrantly colored works of art on the fragile hollow shells of uncooked eggs using a method called wax-resist.

"It's like doodling," she said. "I use a lot of dots, lines and crosshatching, and it's therapeutic, really."

Stern's designs are intricately and patiently drawn with a stylus called a kistka that holds warm beeswax that has been dyed black.

The multicolor designs must be executed in stages, she said. Areas where wax is applied remain the pre-dye color. While the egg is placed in a series of dye baths - going from yellow to orange to red to purple to black, for example - the applied wax repels each new layer of color.

When the drawing and dyeing are complete, the wax is melted off the egg by holding it near an open flame and the wax rubbed off with paper towels to reveal a detailed and brightly colored piece of art.

"One of my favorite sayings is: 'An egg isn't flat and it isn't even round,' " Stern said. "An egg is an ideal surface, but it's very, very awkward when you are first learning."

Rising to the challenge often requires using very simple tools, she said.

Rubber bands, which conform to the egg, aid the artist in creating straight lines, she said. Stern often uses a hot paint stripper to melt off the beeswax in lieu of a candle.

To hold the hollow egg underwater while the shell is absorbing the dye, the artist uses a water-filled glass spice jar as a weight.

The egg is a three-dimensional "canvas" that symbolizes rebirth, and that's what makes pysanky such a compelling art form, said Irene Dzubak, who lives near Stern. A Russian Orthodox who grew up making py sanky using a straight pin stuck into an eraser as a stylus, Dzubak doesn't create the eggs any longer. But her son's father-in-law creates one especially for her every year, she said.

"When I heard Sandy would be demonstrating this art, I invited her to see my eggs," said Dzubak, who said she cherishes them as reminders of her childhood.

Of the dozen she owns, two were created on goose eggs, she said, and she has seen them done on tiny bird's eggs as well.

"When you are holding this little thing in your hand, you need to know how painstaking it is to get from here to there," Dzubak said.

On Wednesday, Stern plans to show a 14-minute video on the process of creating py sanky before her demonstration. Then she will create an egg from beginning to end, from carefully blowing the insides out with a hypodermic needle to removing the wax.

Barbara Cornell, assistant librarian at the Glenwood branch, spotted Stern at a recent craft fair at the Glenwood Community Center where she was displaying handmade covers for sticky note pads and asked her to teach that craft at the library.

But Stern suggested demonstrating pysan ky instead, and a partnership was born. The library purchased copies of the video Stern will show as well as books on the subject, and both formats are available for checkout.

"Most of us have colored Easter eggs, but Sandy takes it to a whole new level," said Cornell, who contributed pysanky she owns to the library's current display of six of Stern's eggs.

"The final reveal when the design is complete is so dramatic," she said.

Stern, who was once an associate editor at Family Circle magazine in New York, does all manner of crafting, from jewelry-making to origami and much more.

But she has never lost interest in pysanky.

"People believed in the magic of the eggs, and making them is just a fun thing to do,." she said.

Anyone interested in attending Stern's demonstration at 7 p.m. Wednesday is encouraged to preregister, said Cornell, either online at or by calling 410-313-5577.


Is there a noteworthy person or event in your neighborhood? Contact Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg at or 410-461-4150.

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