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Arts & Life

Why Some Kansas Citians Spend The Winter Passing On An Ancient Ukrainian Folk Art

Julie Denesha
Frieda Kossyk holds an ostrich egg she decorated with vivid poppies and wheat. It's one of several she made as keepsakes for her grandchildren.

The Ukrainian art of decorating eggs began centuries ago in the heart of Eastern Europe. Once considered a protection against evil, these days, in Kansas City, Kansas, at least, the colorful eggs are a sign of springtime renewal.

“I usually start in January after Christmas when all the hustle and bustle is over with," says Irene Thompson, who spends the coldest days of winter hunched over eggs at the kitchen counter of her Roeland Park home.

"January is such a dull, cold month that just sitting and working on an egg is a lot of fun," Thompson says as she heats her cone-tipped tool, called a kistka, over a candle flame before filling it with beeswax and drawing a fine line of wax on the fragile surface.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
At left, one of Frieda Kossyk's finished eggs hangs from a stand in her home. At right, Kossyk and her daughter Irene Thompson are dressed in Ukrainian folk costume at a Slavic festival.

The craft is called pysanky, after the Ukrainian pysaty, which means "to write." Designs are created by creating patterns with wax and then submerging each egg in colored dye, one layer at a time, beginning with the lightest color and ending with the deepest black.

“Most Ukrainian families they did this because it was an art form that was very inexpensive," Thompson says. "They had eggs on the farm. They had wax and all they needed was just a real primitive tool and they were able to make a beautiful piece of art.”

Traditionally the eggs were embellished with pagan symbols, but they later took on Christian meanings. The triangle once represented the elements of earth, fire and water. Now it symbolizes the Holy Trinity.

Thompson’s father was Ukrainian, but she didn’t learn to make pysanky from him. She took a class in the 1970s and has been making eggs ever since.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
A student heats her cone-tipped tool, called a kistka, over a candle flame before filling it with beeswax.

For the past seven years, Thompson has taught several workshops a year at the Strawberry Hill Museum in Kansas City, Kansas, where she's helped out by her mother, Frieda Kossyk.

“I used to make them all different," says Kossyk. "I made reindeers on them. I made birds on them, you know, and all kind of bunny rabbits for Easter, you know. I made all kind of different eggs.”

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Three hours of work is rewarded as 15-year-old Bethany Bockelman removes the wax from her Ukrainian egg during a pysanky class at the Strawberry Hill Museum.

Both of Thompson’s parents were among the millions of refugees displaced in the aftermath of World War II. Kossyk was an ethnic-German born in East Prussia, who fled Russian troops pouring in from the East.  

“Oh God, I had an awful time. When Russian troops came forward, we had to leave our home and go into Germany and we had quite a bad time there," Kossyk says. "I came out with the train. I came out with an airplane. I came out on top of a tank. So I did not have an easy time. My whole youth was not easy. You know, I was a young girl at this time.”

Kossyk met her Ukrainian husband near Munich, where Irene was born. They had a chance to move to the United States after the war, later settling in the Strawberry Hill area.

In those early years in America, Kossyk didn’t have time to make eggs. Even a simple one can take more than three hours. Once her children were grown, however, Kossyk decorated an egg every day.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Bright, geometric patterns adorn eggs on display in Thompson's Roeland Park home.

Lately her failing eyesight has kept her from her own creations, but she still enjoys helping teach students with her daughter at the Strawberry Hill Museum's popular pysanky class.

“I have always wanted to take this workshop," Ronda Barker said at one recent session. "I’ve tried for four years and it’s always full. It was not full this time so that’s why I’m here. I am just fascinated with these eggs.”

After waxing and dying her egg, Barker was about to see the design she'd created. Thompson used a little lighter fluid to remove the wax.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Gathered around the table, Thompson (from left) shares a laugh with pysanky student Joan Sormanti and another teaching assistant Merna Upp as other students work on their eggs.

"I think it’s going to be prettier than I thought it would be," Barker said as she waited.

Once the lighter fluid does its work, it's time to remove the wax. Barker gently rubbed her egg and a delicate, orange and green star emerged.

Each egg is a revelation, and the other students gather around to take a look and congratulate each other before they face a new challenge: How to get the egg home without breaking it.

That, and waiting for spring.

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.

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