Ukrainian decorated eggs offer hope of rebirth in Downtown pysanky display
Christina Pereyma's Ukrainian heritage is on display at the Riffe Gallery and Statehouse rotunda in the form of beautiful, ornate pysanky made by women in her family
After World War II, Christina Pereyma’s Ukrainian parents, Constantine and Aka Pereyma, were designated as “displaced persons.” With no place to call home, they spent some time in Germany, where they both attended university. In 1950, they crossed the ocean to come to America.
“My father wanted the opportunities that this country presented, as opposed to the Soviet lifestyle, which just held everybody in check,” Christina Pereyma said. “My parents were not free to be Ukrainians in Ukraine, but they were free to be Ukrainians in America. We could celebrate all our holidays. We could do all of our traditions.”
Those traditions included the ancient art of decorating chicken and goose eggs, known as pysanky, which many Ukrainians make every spring. A selection of beautifully ornate, colorful pysanky made my Pereyma and her family — including sister Vaka Farrara, aunt Tanya Osadca and mother Aka — are on display this month in the Riffe Gallery and in the Ohio Statehouse rotunda Downtown.
Like spring, pysanka (singular) is a symbol of renewal and rebirth, but it’s also viewed as a talisman meant to ward off evil. “There's a Ukrainian legend that there's a monster in the hills who wants to destroy humanity,” Pereyma said, noting the folklore’s timeliness as Russia wages war against Ukraine. “He’s chained to the mountain, and every time we decorate an egg, that chain is made stronger.”
While pysanky look painted, the process actually involves writing on an egg; the artform’s name comes from the Ukrainian word “pysata,” meaning “to write.” Artists use a tool called a kistka to mark the egg with hot wax. “We have an electric one made by my great uncle, but the standard is a little funnel wrapped in copper wire and attached to a stick,” Pereyma said. “Molten wax goes into the funnel, and then you draw on the egg.”
Generally, artists begin by dividing the egg into north-south and east-west regions with the kistka, then dyeing the egg, drying it, drawing some more, dyeing, and repeating the process until the artwork is complete. Many of the designs are regional, and certain images convey particular meanings. Jagged triangular lines represent wolf’s teeth. "The horse is a symbol of strength. The deer is a symbol of fidelity,” Pereyma said. “They are protective devices. You would put them above your threshold. You would bury them under your threshold.”
Pereyma learned the art from her mother, an accomplished artist who began exploring her talent after settling in New York City with Constantine, a medical doctor. “My father was working the kind of residence hours that are required, and my mother already had three children, but in those moments of quiet, she started drawing,” Pereyma said. “They were intimate drawings of male-female relationships. My father came home one day and saw them and said, ‘Who did this?’ And she said, ‘I did them.’ And he said, ‘You need to go to art school.’ So immediately she started taking a night class in ceramics in Brooklyn. … My mother, without any English language skills, would get on the subway and go to Manhattan and go through art galleries and look at contemporary art.”
Aka and Constantine eventually settled on a farm in Troy, Ohio, which turned into an arts collective, of sorts, when Aka began attending the Dayton Art Institute. “We started having her fellow students living at our house. We had her teachers living at our house, in our barn, in our chicken house,” Pereyma said, including renowned Native American artist George Morrison, whose work will be featured on U.S. stamps later this month. "That kind of collective good is very different, I think, than an American perspective. I don't know anybody else who had a bunch of random people living in their house just because they were artists.”
In 1992, after Ukraine gained its independence, Aka and her sister, Tanya, visited their hometown of Kopychyntsi in western Ukraine and became cultural ambassadors, of sorts. In 2001, they both received medals of honor from the president of Ukraine that designated each as “Honored Artist of Ukraine.” Aka’s medal and certificate, which are on display in the Statehouse rotunda, honor her “great personal contribution in elevating the international profile of Ukraine, strengthening collaboration and friendly ties with the historical Fatherland.”
“There is a permanent exhibit in Ukraine near her home of all of her art forms. She worked in every art form. She ran the Hobart Welding School for artists in Troy, Ohio. She painted. She did found metal sculpture,” said Pereyma, adding that her aunt was the master of pysanky in the family. “My aunt's workshop was permanent in her home. In our home, the pysanka workshop comes out once a year for about a month and a half. But in both of my aunts’ houses, they had devoted spaces in their homes. My aunts would decorate year-round.”
As Russia’s war against Ukraine rages on, Pereyma has been reaching out to Ukrainian cousins, asking how she can help. “We have a list of organizations that are accepting goods, and, for me, the most surreal is the opportunity to buy ammunition,” she said. “I don't think I ever anticipated a situation in my life that I would be pondering the possibility of buying weapons and body armor for Ukrainians. It's unthinkable.”
Amid the destruction and devastating loss of human life, she also thinks of her mother’s art back in Ukraine. “It was a major amount of her artwork that went to Ukraine,” Pereyma said. “Where is it? How is it?”
In the meantime, as signs of spring’s rebirth finally begin to appear in Ohio, Pereyma continues to decorate eggs — an ancient art now transformed into an act of solidarity and, perhaps, a way of offering protection from afar. “Yes, I'm an educated person. But that niggle over the folklore...,” she said, drifting off. “And it’s comforting. You don't have to pay somebody for mindfulness training if you're decorating eggs.”