The Art of Pysanky: Learning from egg-spert rector Randal Gardner of La Jolla

Randal Gardner, rector at St. James By-the-Sea Episcopal Church, has become a Pysanky aficionado. Photos by Jenna Jay
Randal Gardner, rector at St. James By-the-Sea Episcopal Church, has become a Pysanky aficionado. Photos by Jenna Jay

By Jenna Jay

If you see Randal Gardner this spring, he might stop to give you a hollowed and intricately decorated Easter egg. Better yet, he might offer to show you how he made it. Gardner, rector at St. James By-the-Sea Episcopal Church, is known around the community for his interest in Pysanky, the Ukrainian art form of Easter egg decorating. During the Lenten Season, Gardner puts to use his artistic skills, handcrafting dozens of the Ukrainian eggs at a makeshift home studio in La Jolla.

Recently, he shared the art form with attendees in a series of Friday night classes at the church that took place March 18 and 25 and April 1. In the classes, Gardner guided students through the 3- to 4-hour Pysanky process that includes drawing designs on raw eggs with hot beeswax and dying them in progressively deeper color baths in bold hues of yellow, red and black.

"This was one of the smaller turnouts," Gardner said of the class. "We had six to seven people a night, and we had a couple of families who came all three weeks. By the end of the three weeks they were producing some pretty cool eggs."

Gardner, who has been practicing the Ukrainian egg-making for several years with his wife and children, is enamored with the process as both an art form and for its religious symbolism.

"The egg is a symbol of the Resurrection," Gardner said, "partly because if you look at it, it's a tomb out of which comes a living thing. There's something about it that's strong enough to contain pressure from the outside and yet weak enough that from the inside a very small creature can break free."

Traditional Pysanky uses many designs on the eggs that are religious symbols, such as the fish, which represents Christianity, as well as crosses that signify Christ, poppies that relate to joy and beauty and also wheat, a symbol for good health and harvest.

The process of making the ornate Ukrainian Easter eggs is labor-intensive, but also therapeutic for Gardner, who makes it clear he enjoys making them for the activity, not just the culture. ("I'm not an artist, I'm not Ukrainian; I just have fun with it," he noted.)

Patient as both teacher and designer, Gardner leads occasional Pysanky workshops and classes, walking students through the egg-decorating and dying procedure. The multiple-step process begins with rinsing raw eggs in a vinegar wash. The artist then dips a heated kistka, or hot wax pen, in beeswax, and draws wax designs onto the egg before soaking it into a dye bath with the lightest hue desired.

Wax is continually added to the egg between rounds of increasingly darker color baths, until the egg is dyed a rich black color and layers of color under the wax are ready for reveal.

The unveiling of the egg's rich colors come from heating the wax on the egg next to the flame on a candle, buffing off the excess wax. The decorated eggs are then varnished and dried, and can be blown out using a kit or needle to rid of the egg's interior contents. In total, the Pysanky process can take up to six hours for completion.

"It's a kind of artwork that can be performed in an evening, and that's kind of fun," Gardner said.

Finished eggs can be found in gift shops for upwards of $40. Of course, La Jolla residents are sometimes recipients of Gardner's own decorated eggs.

"We've got a box of other ones we've done over history," said Gardner, who has some on display in his home. "We'll have them for a while and we give a lot of them away. Over the years we've probably made 100 or so and we have very few still in our possession."

For adventurous egg decorators looking to decorate Ukrainian Easter eggs on their own, Gardner suggests purchasing Pysanky kits from online vendors.

   
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