by Stefanie Lade, PortalWisconsin.org
During the season of Lent, folk artist and Suring resident Betty Piso Christenson has been busy practicing a centuries-old Ukrainian tradition, pysanky egg decoration. For Christenson, pysanky (peh-SAHN-key) is both a family tradition and celebration of her heritage.
Christenson has honed her craft over the course of decades. While some pysanky artists practice year round, Christenson follows religious custom and only decorates during the 48 days of the traditional Ukrainian season of Lent, just as her mother did.
Through her years raising a family on their farm in Suring, the season was often very busy with other holiday preparations, but Christenson says, "I always found time, no matter if it was 2 o'clock in the morning!"
The Easter season has always been a very festive one for her family. When she was young, her parents would make baskets for each of the nine children, and there were always a few pysanky eggs inside. Recalling a past Easter when she found her basket and eggs, she told her mother, "I don't think the Easter bunny makes these kind of eggs." After that point, Christenson's mother taught her the art and heritage of pysanky, an art Betty has never given up. In mastering the craft, she continues the tradition as the fourth generation of pysanky artists in her family.
It is a "delicate and patient art," she said, "Every egg has a story, every line has a meaning, every color has a purpose." Her art has never been a line of business, but part of who she is, and an expression of her religion and heritage. And though at first she only decorated eggs for her children and local interest, now her work has been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts, which awarded her a National Heritage Fellowship in 1996. Her work has also been put on display at the Smithsonian. Last Christmas, Christenson's work was again chosen to be displayed in Washington, D.C., this time as an ornament on the public White House Christmas tree.
The art of pysanky itself is centuries old and tied to religious symbolism. Eggs were viewed as symbols of creation, birth and fertility. With the coming of spring, villages performed rituals using eggs to ensure an abundant growing season, a tradition Christenson's father continued on their Wisconsin farm. Also, with the spread of Christianity, pysanky became part of the traditional Easter celebration, taking on the significance of spiritual rebirth and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The process itself begins with raw eggs, dyes, beeswax and a special Ukrainian tool, the kistka (KIST-ka). First, the artist cleans the egg with a diluted vinegar mixture, then dabs it dry, never rubbing. Then, with a blank "canvas," the artist lightly draws the preliminary design with a pencil. Some use rubber bands to ensure straight lines. Then the artist prepares the kistka, a specialized Ukrainian tool shaped like a stick with a small funnel attached to the end. Over the heat of a candle, the artist warms the funnel of the kistka. When beeswax is added to the funnel, the artist meticulously applies the wax to portions of the design meant to stay white, as the wax adheres to the egg and seals it from other dyes. When the wax has been applied to the white areas, the artist begins the dyeing process, progressing from lighter to darker colors. Once the egg has been dyed, the artist again applies wax with the kistka to seal the color again, continuing this process for each shade. Some artists use as many as 20 different colors. After dyeing is complete, the artist removes the wax by holding it near the flame of a candle and gentle wiping off the melting wax. The product is then sealed with a glossy finish.
Now in her seventies, Betty Piso Christenson still takes time to practice this beautiful Ukrainian art form and share it with others. This season, she has been busy teaching a class in Eagle River and recently gave a demonstration in Madison. And, though she has slowed down, she still aims to decorate at least a couple dozen eggs. Later this year, one will adorn the indoor White House Christmas tree. With the season of Lent drawing to a close, this has undoubtedly been a busy time for Betty Christenson, full of festive Easter celebration and memories of pysanky and family traditions.