Stunning motifs, small canvases: Alaskan keeps pysanky tradition alive in Anchorage

Published: Apr. 16, 2021 at 9:40 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - As Orthodox Easter approaches – with hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians around the world, including many people in Ukraine, preparing to celebrate – an Anchorage man is keeping up with his family’s Ukrainian tradition of pysanky.

Also known as Ukrainian Easter eggs, pysanky features folk designs on real eggs that are created through a process called “batik.” They are meticulously and uniquely crafted, sometimes taking days to complete.

“This is an ancient tradition that is more than 3,000 years old,” said Paul Cooley, who lives in Anchorage and learned the art of pysanky from his mother. “Pysanky, which comes from the Ukrainian word ‘pysaty,’ which is ‘to write.’”

Pysanky, Cooley said, are often connected with Orthodox Easter, though meant in general to symbolically represent spring, rebirth and new life. As such, they’re made year-round but are especially popular leading into the holiday.

The tiny works of art, carefully created with designs of all kinds, are made through a wax-resist method that’s been passed down for generations.

“It’s just kind of a family tradition, doing this,” Cooley said, adding that he’s taught his several children how to make pysanky, though they don’t partake as often as he does. “(My mother) learned in the displaced persons camps when she was fleeing after the end of World War II.”

Through pysanky, he said, people are still preserving the Ukrainian culture and traditions.

In a nutshell, Cooley explained the process: “Whatever you want white, cover in wax,” he said of the early steps in the process of creating pysanky. You can start on a blank egg or sketch designs with a pencil, as is often the case.

“You’re basically writing a story on the egg,” he said. “You go to the next color and the next... With the wax at the end, you melt it off.”

After adding dyed sections, featuring bright yellow, green, orange and red, Cooley carefully held an egg he was working on to a candle in order to warm up and remove the wax layer applied on each color and design.

Slowly but surely, an empty canvas of an egg becomes a work of art, and part of a one-of-a-kind collection.

“They are mini-masterpieces; each one is a unique piece of art,” Cooley said. “And like anything, you get better with practice.

“Sometimes, the flubs show up that you didn’t expect,” he laughed. “And other times, it’s like, ‘Oh, it didn’t mess up!’”

For 2021, Orthodox Easter is set to take place on Sunday, May 2.

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