QUESTIONS FOR CRAFTERS: Andrei Gravelle on Psanky
Interview by Jen Anisef
Photos of student work by Andrei Gravelle
This past weekend, when attending Quilt Sunday at the workroom, I was lucky enough to spy on the tail end of the Ukrainian Easter Egg (Psanky (or Pysanky or Pysanka)) workshop. Having always had a hankering to learn more about Psanky, I caught up with the instructor Andrei after the class and asked him for the lowdown on the craft and how he got in to it.
(p.s. I found this great Flickr group if anyone is interested in exploring the world of Psanky further…)
It’s refreshing to see a guy teaching a decorative arts class! Can you tell us how you got in to making and teaching Psanky?
My grandfather was from Kiev and my mother made a point of playing up our Ukrainian heritage when I was young. Growing up, we had a bowl of psanky made by various relatives of mine that I, unfortunately, never had the opportunity to meet. They were like some amazing hidden treasure that we had in the house and I desired for a long time to want to make them myself.
It’s ironic that you comment about it being refreshing to have a guy teaching the class as this was my greatest impediment to learning because traditionally Psanky are made by women only, not men. By some happenstance, when I was about to give up on the idea of learning, I found out that some neighbours of mine were Ukrainian and were eager to share this with me. We are lucky today to have so many resources on the internet but when I was a teenager, unless you knew someone in the Ukrainian community that did it, trying to find out anything about it was a daunting task. I did it quite a bit in my teen years but then stopped for a while. When my mother passed away a couple of years ago, I decided to do a workshop as a kind of tribute to her and have been re-engaged with it since then. My partner, Tosca Teran (nanopod studio) has been a great influence on trying to keep my creative momentum going and she recommended I contact Karyn about hosting workshops at the workroom this year. It was really great to be in the workroom and all 23 or so of the participants this year were all really fabulous.
What are the processes and materials involved in Psanky eggs?
The word Psanky is from the same root as ‘to write”. With a tool called a Kistka, one writes on the egg with wax. It’s similar to batik in that it’s a wax resist process going from lighter to darker coloured dyes, marking out the areas with wax that you want to keep a particular colour before proceeding to the next dye. At the end, you end up with a sooty wax covered egg but when you melt the wax off, you are rewarded with a burst of colour!
Is it possible to DIY it at home with household materials?
Unfortunately not as food colouring or other dyes do not have the same properties of allowing you to build up colours. However, the tools and materials are not expensive……in fact, they are extremely cheap! The basic materials are dyes, a writing tool called a kistka and bee’s wax. I prefer to use a wooden kistka which gives somewhat idiosyncratic results because it is a very crude tool. There are improvements over this such as the kistkas they sell with plastic handles and a cast brass funnel or even electric kistkas. For my sense of aesthetic, however, I think that eggs done with an electric kistka start to lose their handmade quality. There are many people that make truly wonderful eggs with a tool like this but it’s just not for me.
Is there any cultural or religious significance behind the craft or the symbols used in Psanky designs?
It’s an ancient traditon that predates Christianity by thousands of years. It was something that had pagan roots that was adapted to Christianity around the late 10th century. The same symbols have been used by both sets of beliefs sometimes with the same meanings or meanings that are only slightly altered. In my workshops, I explain some of the symbols and meaning of colours but inasmuch as there is lots of room for creative expression, I feel that anyone can make an egg that is “authentic” with very little instruction. On a spiritual note, I heard from many of the participants in the workshop that the activity had a meditation like quality….there were some very happy but also very quiet moments happening with everyone in deep concentration.
I am hoping to get my Psanky on this coming Easter weekend – do you have any traditional or contemporary Psanky artists to recommend for inspiration?
There are many artists out there but I would actually encourage people to make rather than to purchase. I feel that the process of creation is the most important aspect of the tradition. A really good google is “Luba Perchyshyn” who I feel is one of the single most important influences on the popularization of Psanky in North America. In 1947 she created a kit that people could order and published several guides. She passed away in 1993 but her influence is going strong. If you need one source of reference only, anything by her is where to start. I understand that under communism that Psanky were discouraged in the Ukraine so what is interesting now is that there is a kind of renaissance happening. It may be difficult to fully gauge what has been lost but with so much renewed interest, there might be more impetus to put more resources towards further discovery of the past.
Can you recommend any local resources for those interested in making Psanky eggs?
I used to go to a shop called West Arka on Bloor west but sadly, they are no longer there. I was delighted to discover a Ukrainian gift shop called Koota Ooma on the Queensway in Etobicoke: kootaooma.com. They are super friendly and very helpful.
Filed under: Questions for Crafters