Arts & Entertainment

A Pagan Art Turned Christian Tradition

A Pagan Art Turned Christian Tradition

by Joe Bowen

For many Bemidji residents, spring presents a once-a-year occasion to dye colorful eggs as they celebrate Easter, but for ethnic artist Mary Morton, dyeing and decorating Easter eggs is a year-round passion and a modest side income.
Among other creative pursuits such as Norwegian rosemaling, Morton creates Ukrainian-style Easter eggs and teaches others how to turn ordinary grocery store eggs into the colorful, geometrically patterned masterpieces she’s been making for decades.
“I find it intriguing that these things were done hundreds of years ago — what possessed all of the different countries to have this need for beauty and art?” Morton said. “They all kind of developed something unique and yet kind of similar.”
Each egg gets emptied with a special straw called an “egg blower.” Morton uses a dremel tool to poke a small opening in one end of the egg, then inserts the straw and gently blows into it, expelling the whites and yolk. This step isn’t absolutely necessary, but Morton has just enough anecdotes about eggs with thin or imperfect shells exploding their rotten contents across a living room to make it advisable.
After years and years, un-”blown” eggs’ insides shrivel and harden and give the impression that a small marble or lead weight has found a home there.
Once the eggs are emptied, Morton uses a “kistka” to draw painstaking beeswax lines across their surfaces. In the same way that a painter might use tape to mask parts of a wall, the wax protects the surface underneath from each dye wash, and each new color requires new wax lines.
This step is traditionally done with a piece of wood with copper wrapped at one end, heated by a candle. More modern egg-dyers use an electric tool that operates under the same principle.
She uses reference points from earlier lines to anchor new ones — a series of marks drawn from the midway points of others, coalescing into a star.
“It’s geometry,” Morton said.
She uses an assortment of scratch-made dyes stored in mason jars to color the eggs.
Morton said each egg takes about 45 minutes to complete. The process is called “Pysanky,” and an egg dyed in that style is called a “pysanka,” which is Ukrainian for “to write.”
Morton said her interest in the art form was sparked by a class she took in the late ‘70s.
The process is descended from pagan spring celebrations, she explained — life springing from a seemingly lifeless egg paralleled color and vitality returning to the landscape.
“It was a spring festival celebrating life renewed,” Morton said. “When Christianity came in, a lot of the symbols converted over to Christianity. That’s why we call them Easter Eggs.”
Eastern European women would set aside entire days to dye eggs, Morton said, and made sure they had enough to mark weddings, funerals and other life events. Families would put eggs above their doors for good luck and to ward off disease, and teenage girls would give the colorful creations to boys they liked, she said.
Despite all her knowledge of the country’s cultural traditions, Morton herself isn’t Ukrainian.
“I just love the art,” she said.

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