Psyanky, or egg-writing, was the last lesson Shannon Wallis of Norwich taught as an elementary school teacher some 23 years ago, though she did not know it at the time. Teaching art to fourth, fifth, and sixth graders at Hanover Street School and Seminary Hill in 1999, Wallis was ordered on bed rest while pregnant: “I took a leave of absence and then didn’t go back to teaching art, so that was the last unit I taught,” she said.
A coincidence that now feels fateful, Wallis is a full-time pysanky artist creating intricate designs on delicate eggs. Wallis first learned this Ukrainian artform while training to become an elementary school teacher about 30 years ago. Ten years ago, Wallis introduced some of her friends to pysanky during Easter and that June: “They called me up and said, ‘We’re gonna egg, do you want to come over?’ and we started getting together once a month.” This turned into a year round activity and Wallis has now been making a living as a pysanky artist for 5 years.
The word pysanky comes from the Ukrainian word “to write,” hence why the art form is referred to as “egg-writing.” “Often people think about writing a story while they’re working on their eggs,” Wallis says, “The story may be a prayer, it may be symbolic, or it may be for the recipient.” Traditionally, the pysanky eggs hold a cultural meaning – they have been planted in fields to ensure a good harvest or placed in the cow barns to enhance milk production. In Spring, Wallis says, girls would write an egg and give it to the boy for whom she held affection. “There’s a story you’re putting on the egg, that’s why we say ‘to write.’”
The action of the art itself reminds Wallis of writing. The artist uses a teeny bundle, called a kistka, filled with beeswax that has been melted over a candle or electrically to write on the egg. The egg then goes into a dye and the eggs become colored wherever the beeswax is not present. This may sound familiar to many of us; Wallis says the process is similar to using a white wax crayon on an Easter egg – albeit with a much finer point! The alternate wax and dyeing process continues with as many color layers as the artist wishes to add. “For every color on an eggshell,” Wallis says, “there’s that many layers of wax and dye.” The pysanky artist doesn’t know what her egg will look like until the final step when all the wax is then melted off the egg. Sometimes the final design can be quite a surprise.
Wallis loves creating pysanky because of the geometry of the egg: “It’s different at the equator than it is on either end,” and that it allows her to vary her designs with her interests. “Whether it’s a design or a color pattern or a color scheme, I can play around with things.” When being juried into the League of NH Craftsmen, Wallis was worried the group wouldn’t see enough of a cohesive theme but they liked her collection all the same.
Although Wallis herself is not Ukrainian, she has met a number of pysanky artists who came to the artform through their Ukrainian or Eastern European heritage, and Wallis says they are always glad to have more people practicing the art form. “It’s a the-more-the-merrier feel,” she says.
This appreciation for people taking up the artform comes from the fact that it was at risk of being lost in Ukraine. “I’ve learned Ukrainian culture was suppressed in Ukraine,” Wallis says, “They weren’t allowed to speak their language or practice their arts, so some of it went underground but a lot came with the immigrants to North America.”
The artform making its way to North America with the large Ukrainian diaspora has been essential for the form’s survival. There are many people of Ukrainian heritage across Canada and the northern United States and Wallis feels lucky to have tapped into the network. She has Ukrainian-American friends from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania with whom she zooms once a week, and they assist Wallis with Ukrainian cultural and language questions. This May she attended a 5-day pysanky retreat in the Catskills at a Ukrainian cultural heritage center where she both taught and attended classes.
Wallis also participated in Pysanky for Ukraine Day on April 1st. A Canadian pysanky artist started this tradition in 2014 after Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula as a day for artists to get together and write. “It was like, ‘What can I do from here?’” Wallis says. “Let’s get together and pray and write and let people in Ukraine know that we’re with them in spirit.” This year over 150 people attended the virtual event where three Ukrainian pysanky artists spoke, including the head of the Pysanky Museum in Ukraine. Wallis herself has an egg over in Ukraine now that was intended to be part of an exhibition of Pysanky in North America. This has been put on hold and the eggs have been moved to another location after several cultural areas were bombed in central and eastern Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine has unsurprisingly affected and inspired Wallis’ work. She’s recently purchased eggs from and taken a Zoom masterclass with a Ukrainian pysanky artist, Tetiana Konoval. Wallis ended up being the only student in the class and laughs recalling neither Konoval or Wallis spoke the other’s language and had to type to each other with Google Translate. Konoval explained to Wallis her recent designs, which are in the style of traditional village scenes but now feature tractors pulling tanks, Ukrainian flags, or the Mariupol iron plant, with people hiding underground at the bottom of the egg and soldiers around them defending the plant. “It just gives you chills to look at these eggs,” Wallis says, “She’s making statements about the war and is really very much writing the story.”
Currently, Wallis says, she, and many of her friends have also been creating a lot of blue and yellow eggs in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. She has also been working on a number of eggs with traditional designs from five different areas in Ukraine that all were directly affected by bombings or invsaion for the upcoming Day for Ukraine fundraiser at La Salette Shrine in Enfield on June 11th. Wallis will be demonstrating her art at the event and have plenty of eggs for sale as well. The writing process can take Wallis anywhere between one and four hours so she plans on having a number of nearly finished eggs at the event so people can watch the big reveal at the end. Wallis hopes the participants not only get to learn about pysanky, but also come away with a greater understanding of Ukrainian culture. She notes that she has learned it is best to refer to the country as “Ukraine” and not “the Ukraine” as adding “the” can be offensive to some folks who feel that makes the country seem to be only a region. “I want to make sure people understand that Ukraine is a sovereign country with a real cultural heritage and that these people are really fighting for their sovereignty,” Wallis says.
Wallis recently held her own fundraiser for Ukrainian relief, donating 25% of her sales to World Central Kitchen during the four weeks leading up to Easter. This combined with donations made through her fundraiser page totaled over $3,000.00. She also participated in a Ukrainian relief fundraiser with the Library Arts Center in Newport, NH and donated 10 eggs to Long River Gallery in WRJ; all eggs have sold with proceeds going to World Central Kitchen.
Even the act of writing pysanky can help, Wallis says. She’s shared designs on social media and people currently in Ukraine have written to express their appreciation for her writing eggs. Wallis shares an old legend from western Ukraine that tells a tale of a monster chained up in the mountains who, every spring, sends his minions out to the villages to see if people are writing pysanky. If they are, his chains tighten; if fewer people are writing his chains loosen. If no one at all is writing pysanky, then evil will be free to rain terror. Wallis mentions she has always read that folktale at the beginning of her classes, but feels it’s taken on new meaning with the war.
Wallis is grateful to continue creating pysanky with her global community and sharing this artform with a new group of people at the Day for Ukraine: “I truly feel really honored to be an ambassador of the art form.”
The Day for Ukraine fundraiser will take place on June 11th, 2022 at the La Salette Shrine in Enfield, NH. Please visit La Salette’s website for more information on the day: www.lasaletteofenfield.org. Shannon Wallis can be found on her site: www.shannonwallisdesigns.com.