BLUEFIELD – Coloring eggs for Easter is a fun tradition in many American homes, but there are people who lovingly practice an Eastern European art to create intricate, colorful eggs for the season.
Mary Ranae Semonco Bailey of Mercer County is among the people who know the art of pysanky. The root of the word means “to write”.
Bailey stopped at St Mary’s Orthodox Church in Bluefield to share the variety of pisanky eggs she created and demonstrate her techniques for making them. She learned her art from her grandmother, Mary Semonco.
“This is not really considered painting. It’s considered writing, ”she said. “It’s a kind of iconography. Don’t paint icons. Iconographers write the icon because it has a story, as do some of the eggs I make. “
Her grandmother often made her Easter eggs in front of a coal stove, but now new tools like an oil lantern and egg lathe help the technique. An important first step is to select the right eggs.
“The process is, of course, egg selection and I updated it from my grandmother, who taught me the art,” Bailey said. “She boiled the eggs and she used the available dye and the eggs obviously rotted. and then over the years we decided how to keep the egg. So my husband punches them with a Dremel. The egg has a hole in the bottom and I have a pump and pump out the contents of the eggs.
Other steps need to be done before dyeing the eggs. Not all eggs have the same qualities.
“Some of them need to be cleaned. It doesn’t matter how, “he said.” You just wash them; but a duck egg, nevertheless, is very dirty because a duck eggshell is very different from anything else. If you are not very careful with it, it is not. will take the tincture.
“I barely rinse them,” added Bailey. “And then after they’ve been offloaded for a couple of days then I’m ready to start splitting the marks on them. This is a lathe; it’s to divide the egg into quadrants so I can work on it.
Bailey doesn’t use chicken eggs now because they tend to be fragile.
“I did, but I found that they have a lot of fractures,” he said. “If you hold an egg up to the light, you see these hairline fractures and the joke in this is that it’s a scrambled egg waiting to happen because if you start blowing it, it just pops open.”
Bailey pointed out the variety of other birds’ eggs.
“These shells appear to be stronger and are just easier to work with,” he said. “I obviously use geese, duck, bantam. Now I am starting to work on guinea pig eggs. They are already a little blue, so they are very cute. I drove to Christiansburg. You have to wait for what you are receiving to be laid. The ducks, at least from what I’ve been told, aren’t doing very well right now, so I’ll get them anyway when they arrive and prepare the eggs for next year. and there is a man in Camp Creek who has ducks, geese, guinea fowl and bantams right now, and he was very good at working with him and I just have to go to Camp Creek to get the eggs.
Bailey said he doesn’t buy his eggs online. Eggs, tools and supplies for pysanky have become more difficult to obtain.
“The supply chain for all of this has been affected by COVID,” Bailey said. “I just need a lantern and a wick. I can’t get the wicks for that particular lantern. The man who was one of my mentors, was Pennsylvania, who made all the dyes – he’s a chemist – I tried to contact him last year thinking he was just slow to answer me. He had died of COVID. I don’t know what’s going on with his business with him, so he’s influenced us all. “
It still uses its available stocks carefully. An egg fixed to its table lathe had pencil marks dividing it into quadrants.
“Then I put the egg in here and divide the egg. and then that gives me direction, “Bailey said.” My grandmother and my other relatives who did this, didn’t use it. They seemed to have the eye for it. Their lines were straight and perfect, but I I use this.
Using his oil lamp, Bailey heats the beeswax. Using a homemade tool, a pin set in the eraser of a pencil, he applies the melted wax to the egg. He warned that he only takes one shot at a time. When the hot wax touches the egg, which is a cooler surface, it quickly hardens.
“There is no recovery from your mistakes with this particular method. Once you put the wax there, it’s there, “Bailey said.” And you put it in the dye and you remove the wax, you have what you have. “
Once a wax design is on the egg, it is dipped in the dye. This process is done several times to create a model. He took a prepared egg.
“I have home containers of all the different dyes,” Bailey said. “The dyes that I have had, and I have some left over from the gentleman I told you about who passed away, have very intense shades. This egg is popped. If you put it in the dye, it will float. It was he who developed this technique to blow it, stab the egg, put on some gloves and all you have to do is insert the egg and the dye has taken. They take that color so quickly.
“I just put on gloves, these rubber gloves, I went through hundreds of them,” he said. “I dip it, lift it and dry it. I let it air dry.
If he’s making a tricolor egg, he has to think through a pattern. You have picked up a work in progress.
“As with this one, I started with white. Then I made the red and put it in blue, “he said.” You have to carefully choose your coloring from light to dark. If I’m going to have white on it, I draw on the egg white. It’s wax. This is beeswax. The tools I use are very crude, old fashioned, whatever. I’ve been using this same pencil for 15, 20 years. It’s just a pin in an eraser.
Another step is to remove the beeswax. Bailey uses a modern method.
“Not like my grandmother, who sat in front of a coal stove and scrubbed it away. I modernized it. I take a hair dryer and hold the egg in my hand and pass the hair dryer over it. It’s very different from what I’ve seen her do. “
Bailey shares his art with friends and family.
“I give them. I don’t keep many. I give them to my grandchildren. They love them. I give them to anyone I think who likes them. I’ve never sold them or anything, “Bailey said.” I love art and I love to give them away.
The Easter eggs her grandmother cooked with the pysanky methods were the ones she hunted as a child.
“He boiled the eggs, of course, and I can remember if he messed up an egg, and they looked better than these, he said go ahead and eat it,” Bailey recalled, adding that today’s eggs cannot be peeled and eaten since the dyes are not safe for consumption.
Even today one of his grandmother’s children colors and draws eggs.
“Her eldest daughter, Ann, is 97. She lives in Maryland and is still coloring her eggs,” Bailey said. “She still does it every year. Something somehow draws you towards it this time of year.
– Contact Greg Jordan at email@example.com