The creation of Ukrainian Easter eggs, known as pysanky, is a timeless tradition dating back over a thousand years but as So Jeo LeBlond discovered, one doesn’t need roots in Ukraine to become skilled at the intricate art form.
“I’ve always been very crafty,” she explained from her newly renovated studio in the old farmhouse outside Scotsburn, NS, she shares with her husband and two teenaged children. “I knit, embroider, and sew. I have an interest in making things.”
She’d first tried her hand at Easter eggs when she was a child, intrigued by a show she’d seen on television about Ukrainian women making the eggs. A few years later, she received a Ukrainian Easter egg craft kit for Christmas but wasn’t satisfied with her result.
Yet decades later, when her children were young and her husband, a boilermaker, worked away, she returned to the eggs as a way to fill her evenings.
“Paul could be gone for weeks at a time so I had a lot of free time after the kids had gone to bed,” said LeBlond. “I ordered the supplies online and started working with the materials. I’m one of those obsessive people who watches videos and reads up on things in order to learn how to do it myself.”
Derived from the Ukrainian verb, “pysaty,” meaning “to write”, each pysanka, or Easter egg (plural: pysanky), tells a story using colour and symbols. In the ancient Ukrainian tradition, the finished egg symbolizes life, hope, happiness, and rebirth.
According to LeBlond, there are different views on what is actually considered pysanky. “A lot of people consider what I do ‘art eggs’ because I don’t use traditional designs.”
A self-taught artist, LeBlond creates her own designs because she didn’t find it interesting to copy someone else’s traditional patterns. “I have no Ukrainian background, no grandmother or mother to teach me how to do it or pass along meanings,” she said. Since she enjoys gardening, her designs often include flowers.
Using primarily turkey eggs, LeBlond prepares them herself by blowing them out and cleaning off the dark spots, then uses an egg marker to divide each shell into eight vertical sections.
“There’s a lot to my designs and I use smaller tips than other people so I have a lot of design on a very small surface,” she said.
The process includes applying beeswax to elements of the design to protect them from the layers of dye. “The wax seals in what you want to keep,” explained LeBlond. When dyeing is complete, the wax is melted off. LeBlond seals her finished eggs with a single layer of varnish.
“When I’m working on an egg, I kind of know what it’s going to look like but I don’t really know,” she said with a laugh. “It’s always a surprise at the end.”
LeBlond uses a special technique that gives her art eggs a distinctive three-dimensional quality. At different layers, she etches right into the eggshell to allow the outlines and certain elements to stand out.
Because she uses such a fragile canvas, she works with two or three eggs of one design at the same in case one or two don’t make it to the end of the process.
Despite the two dogs and two cats in the house, LeBlond said there is very little breakage. “It’s a really rare occurrence for an egg to get broken. Even when the kids were little, they just knew they weren’t supposed to touch anything.”
Having taken over what was the children’s playroom, LeBlond recently renovated the space to create a brighter room with ample storage space for the eggs and dipping jars.
While she works, she listens to audio books from the library. “I like historical fiction, like Diana Gabaldon, and crime and detective stories,” she said. Considering it can take between one and four days to complete an egg, LeBlond prefers long books that keep her attention for days at a time.
Her love of small details inspired her to create a line of jewelry as well. To make bracelets, pendants and earrings out of her designs, LeBlond uses finch eggs, which are paper thin and extremely delicate.
“They’re really hard to work with so that’s another speciality, making jewelry with the little eggs.”