The Healing Art of Pysanky

Artist Jenny Santa Maria believes in the healing power of art. Pysanky is her therapy of choice.

Pysanky is the Ukrainian art of decorating eggs using a wax-resist method and dyes to create designs. “Pysanka” comes from the verb “pysaty,” meaning to write or inscribe.

A traditional tool called a kistka is used to draw the designs onto the eggs in beeswax, layer upon layer. It’s a process that Santa Maria describes as the serious version of how children draw designs on an Easter egg with a white Crayon before dying it.

While she was privileged to learn the authentic pysanky traditions and methods many years ago from a family friend without daughters who wanted to pass the skill along, she has since taken the practice in new and different directions. She recognized immediately the impact that the lessons would have on her future and knew that a lifelong passion had been ignited within her.

Both on her website and in her workshops, she stresses the differences between her art practice and traditional pysanky, conscientiously choosing to refer to her art form as batik eggs. She feels it’s important to make this distinction because she does not create her eggs using the same cultural designs or process as traditional pysanky and she practices her art beyond the spring timeline.

For example, traditional pysanky will utilize just five dyes, while Santa Maria can employ upwards of 50 colors in her eggs. Her designs can also range from orthodox to modern.

“Healing art belongs to everyone, but pysanky belongs to the Ukrainians.” she reiterated.

Brattleboro Museum & Art Center will host a workshop led by Santa Maria on Saturday, April 9. The workshop was fully registered at the time of this writing, but those interested in being placed on a waitlist can call the center.

It is her fifth year making the trip to Vermont to share the art of egg decorating. It is the farthest location she travels to from her home in New Jersey and she is appreciative that the center took a chance on her in the beginning and accepted her proposal.

“I love to do it,” she said. “I’m happy to do it. It’s a really relevant art and people want to connect to that.”

During her workshops, she also shares the cultural history of pysanky, discussing the traditional Ukrainian folklore and its meanings. The creation of these beautiful eggs is believed to keep evil chained — the eggs represent abundance and peace and the more eggs that are created, the tighter the chains on evil become.

She has observed over the years the ability of pysanky to create and nurture community. Many of her workshop attendees return annually to share in the sense of culture they gain from the art and the stories. Although Santa Maria is not Ukrainian, a fact can come as a surprise to some who attend, she is devoted to this art form that has become therapeutic in her own life.

“I have an art therapy background,” she explained. “This is the therapy I choose to do at home. It’s relaxing and enjoyable and it’s an art practice anyone can do.”

The recent war in Ukraine has brought an even greater depth of meaning to pysanky in the attendees with close connection to the culture, Santa Maria believes. The practice is healing, and the folklore serves to further instill a sense of calm and a communal sharing of the moment.

“The art heals to a degree and brings a sense of calm,” she said. “But a bigger part is the folklore. Practicing right now brings a sense of empowerment,” she described. “These are important stories to share.”

Her workshops use unblown eggs and allow attendees to independently practice the art, melting beeswax to draw lines and create layers with the many dyes. The wax lines dry immediately and seal in the color beneath, leaving a mystery until there is a “big reveal” and the wax is peeled away at the end of the process.

“It feels good,” she said. “It’s what people need in our tense, fast-paced world. I’m so privileged to know it and to expand upon it. It gives me permission to be creative in new directions.”

She would love to add additional local workshops to her schedule in the coming years and those interested in scheduling a workshop can contact her via her website.

“The important takeaway is that anyone can do it,” she said of her workshops. “They can leave empowered and know that they can pass it on. …It’s not about the final product. It’s process-based.”

Another aspect of her life is her job as an art teacher at a nonprofit school for challenged boys, a role that has greatly contributed to her understanding of art’s healing capabilities in a therapeutic setting.

“Where there’s pain, there’s passion,” she said. “Art is like music and movement — these are coping skills. So many people don’t know what they need to relax and cope.”

To be placed on the waiting list for the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center workshop, call 802-257-0124 extension 101. To view more of Santa Maria’s egg artistry or to contact her about hosting a workshop, visit mustachioart.com.


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