People on Earth must make enough pysanky eggs each year to keep the chains that hold the evil monster strong, says Ukranian legend. If not enough are made, the chains will break and the monster will be let loose on the world. “I like to say I’m saving the world,” says artist Mia Sohn.
The elaborately decorated eggs are created using a wax relief process. Artists alternate dyeing the egg, drawing on it with beeswax where they want to preserve the color, then dyeing it a different color. The total process can take one-and-a-half hours for a simple egg dyed red with a white snowflake, to nearly a month for an elaborately dyed ostrich egg.
The artist must apply the dye from light to dark and know what to draw when. “It takes a lot of planning,” reveals Sohn.
After she applies all the colors, the wax is melted off to reveal the fully decorated egg. Sohn jokes that it is a slow and tedious process that perhaps no sane person does.
She didn’t expect to be an egg artist (though she always wanted to create art). The eggs drew her in from the start. She grew up in Venice Center, a small town between Auburn and Ithaca. When she was two, her dad brought home two pysanky eggs. “I decorated the eggs, but got frustrated because I couldn’t make them look the way I wanted,” she says.
Years later, in 1977, as a young mother looking for a little time to herself, she signed up for a pysanky egg decorating class at the local Huntington Island Library. That first class gave Sohn the introduction to making the eggs she envisioned.
The Ukranian art of pysanky dates back to 3,000 B.C., explains Sohn. Colors, shapes and figures all have their own symbolism. “I’m not Ukranian,” she says, “so I have studied the traditions.” Red represents passion, yellow is happiness and purple is faith. A fish means prosperity, while a butterfly suggests a fresh start. Borders suggest eternity and prayers.
To create the eggs, Sohn “doodles.” “I play with the color to make them fun. More and more I blend traditional elements and nontraditional color combinations. I see patterns and colors. I try to bring the art into the 21st century.” After conceiving a design, which may also involve new techniques such as etching the shells with an acid wash, she tries it on an egg. “They aren’t always a success,” she admits.
Sohn tries to create a story on each egg, which often results in asymmetric designs. Special orders have relayed stories of love, hope and remembrance. “I try to put a bit of whimsy into my traditional designs. For example, ram horns traditionally represent strength, so I made a Christmas egg that showed the horns as interlocking candy canes – to add a little sweetness,” she laughs.
Being an egg artist hasn’t allowed her to quit her day job as a customer service representative in Rochester – where she’s been a resident since 1999 (she spent 24 years in Long Island previously) – but Sohn says she feels quite successful with her art. Her first eggs sold 37 years ago in her father-in-law’s liquor store for $2 each. Now she attends juried art shows in Upstate New York, including the Cornhill Art Festival, where her eggs sell from $10 to $500. She usually attends eight shows a year, where she demonstrates her art and talks with people about the craft and the eggs she has created. She also sells the eggs on her website.
As much as this art form is her personal passion, Sohn also sees it as her contribution to the world. “The nicest thing I have ever been told was after I related the Ukranian legend surrounding the eggs to a family friend. That friend responded, ‘Well of course you are [saving the world]. Beauty always fights evil.’”
To see more of Mia Sohn’s work, visit her website pysankyegg.homestead.com.
by Barb Frank