Decorating eggs is a popular Easter tradition that spans cultures. But for Maria Hartland, a licensed social worker in the Akron Children’s Showers Family Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders, it’s a way to preserve and celebrate Ukrainian culture through the ancient artform of pysanky.
Pysanky stems from the Ukrainian word “pysaty,” meaning “to write or inscribe.” While the stunning colors and intricate designs may appear as if painted, the elaborate eggs are created using wax and colored dye.
In Ukraine, pysanky are traditionally given as gifts for Easter, but Maria often gives them year-round to her co-workers in the hematology/oncology department, typically when they celebrate retirement from the hospital.
“We have a very close-knit team in hem/onc, as you can imagine,” she said. “The work that we do is quite challenging and difficult at times. We’ve been very blessed to create these relationships within our team. I thought this [gift] was a perfect segue into retirement. Eggs often symbolize a new life, so I thought it’s a great way to thank someone for their time working with us on the team and to wish them luck.”
Maria says she learned how to create pysanky as a child, while attending the Ukrainian American Youth Association, a Ukrainian program similar to Girl Scouts. With both of her parents born in western Ukraine, she speaks Ukrainian and has deep ties not only to the Ukrainian community in Greater Cleveland, but the country as well.
She creates the eggs using the traditional wax-resist method. After planning the pattern, she traces her designs in beeswax using an electric or traditional “kistka” heated over a candle flame. The egg is dyed using a layered approach from the lightest color to the darkest. After the dye sets, she melts the wax, applies a varnish, and then hollows the egg.
“As with any other art, it can be very therapeutic because there’s a beginning, middle and an end to each piece,” she said. “When you melt the wax off, to me that’s like Christmas morning. All of the colors that you’ve covered are revealed, and that is really cool to see.”
Maria says the total time to create an egg varies between a few hours to a few months, depending on the intricacy of her design. Over the years, she has created hundreds of eggs, and she jokes that she’s broken nearly as many as she’s made. But she keeps a stash on-hand as gifts for her co-workers whenever a special occasion arises.
While Easter eggs in the U.S. often appear in bright pastels, pysanky feature bold, rich colors of yellow, orange, green, red, brown and black. The ornate designs are steeped in Ukrainian folklore, religious symbolism and cultural meaning with patterns representing a good harvest, fertility and blessings.
“Pysanky have been used for their protective qualities,” said Maria. “You’ll see a lot of designs with swirls. The thought was if evil came to your home, it would get caught up in the swirls to keep your family safe.”
It’s those protective qualities that have added significance this year, as Russia wages war on Ukraine. Maria says it’s difficult to watch the war unfold in real time, and she’s focused on finding ways to help, where she can.
Despite the challenges and uncertainty surrounding the war, Maria says she welcomes the opportunity to share this part of her heritage with others.
“It means a lot to me to be able to share the culture and show what’s at stake,” she said. “Many of us have families in Ukraine, so to see that destruction is very difficult. It means a lot to be able to share this piece, whether or not it will bring an understanding or a different way of thinking. I hope it shares a little happiness about Ukraine.”