“We’re getting close to my egg room,” Luba Perchyshyn says as she pushes her rolling walker past bookcases and cabinets filled with the handmade folk art of Ukraine. From room to room in the sprawling St. Anthony home, she shuffles past ceramics, paintings and eggs — lots of eggs.
From palm-sized chicken eggs to much larger ostrich orbs, all are adorned with tiny, intricate strokes. In Ukrainian, the eggs are called pysanky. And Perchyshyn, 91, is a world-renowned master in the art of decorating them.
Once a pagan tribute to spring, the pre-Christian custom of Ukrainian egg painting evolved to become tied to Easter — that is, Orthodox Easter, celebrated by Ukrainians on April 12 this year.
The eggs differ from those of other cultures because of the “writing” (pysaty in Ukrainian) — minuscule designs made by drawing wax on the egg before dipping it in vibrant dyes. Children grow up making pysanky in their homes with their families. But for professionally decorated eggs, local Ukrainian-Americans think first of Perchyshyn, who, with a deep appreciation for her culture, sustained the craft in the Twin Cities as Soviet rule suppressed art and expression back in Ukraine.
“Luba single-handedly kept this art form alive in Western civilization,” said Ivas Bryn, a longtime family friend who is active in the Minneapolis Ukrainian community. “The artistry of it, the meaning of the symbols and everything were removed by the Soviets.”
Over time, a love and respect for Perchyshyn’s eggs united the community here, Bryn said. “It didn’t matter what parish you were at; there were no boundaries.
“The whole point was it was Ukrainian and it kept the symbolism together.”
The highly detailed designs on the eggs convey religious and natural themes. Dots, for instance, represent the tears of the Virgin Mary; wheat represents the bountiful crop of Ukraine.
The eggs are often presented as Easter gifts, and are usually chosen for their meanings. Give a rooster to someone who is infertile and she might conceive. Give someone a deer if you want them to prosper.
Turning a hobby into a business
The always-grinning Perchyshyn learned to design these miniature masterpieces by watching her beloved mother, Marie Procai. Procai emigrated alone at age 14, settling in Minneapolis.
In a 1972 article in National Geographic magazine, Procai explained why she began decorating eggs — something she had learned from her grandmother in western Ukraine. She was homesick: “At Easter, I had to decorate an egg,” Procai said. “It was something in me.”
Together, mother and daughter turned their home-based hobby into a business in 1947, and Perchyshyn’s sister, Johanna Luciow, joined them in the 1950s. The idea was hatched at the Minnesota State Fair, where they had come across a woman selling pysanky. They asked her where she made them and how she sold them the rest of the year. From her front porch, the woman said.
“I said, ‘Ma, we could do that,’ ” Perchyshyn recalled. “And that’s how we opened our store.”
Perchyshyn appears in that National Geographic article, described then as a “vivacious brunette.” Four decades later, the grandmother of four hasn’t really changed, although she’s traded her black braids for a brown pouf. She’s as meticulous with her appearance as she is with her eggs, neatly put together in a traditional embroidered Ukrainian shirt and vest.
Perchyshyn is the last living artist of the original threesome. Her handiwork has been shipped to every continent except Antarctica. She can’t put a number on her output, guessing that she’s painted millions of eggs since her first, some 84 years ago. She even popularized the activity outside the Ukrainian community by selling instructional kits so people could make the eggs at home.
The craft has prospered “largely as a result of what the Ukrainian Gift Shop did for so many years … and their evangelism, if you will, of a rich Ukrainian tradition,” said Luba Lewytzkyj, whose father was the Perchyshyn family’s priest. Perchyshyn and her mother “were a foundational part of our community.”
Petite with a big personality, Perchyshyn still gives orders to her 48-year-old son Elko, who manages their Minneapolis gift shop. At home, in the egg room, she draws as deftly as ever.
Making eggs is almost meditative. She works every day, sometimes from before dawn till late at night. The Hallmark Channel blares in the background, yet she thinks of nothing but the oval in front of her. It is a way to keep her mother’s memory alive, she said.
“Every day I think about her,” she said tenderly. “Little flowers, blue flowers, my mother loved to put on all her little eggs. I remember my mom. How can people forget their parents? My father was wonderful, too, but my mother was my heart.”
Inside the egg room
The egg room, which is really a small home office, is a mini one-woman Easter egg factory. Cartons of painted eggs are stacked on almost every available surface — in bookcases, on a side table, jam-packed into shelves. On the walls hang posters of her designs. Right outside the door is a photo of her with Laura Bush, standing in front of a White House Christmas tree on which the former first lady hung one of Perchyshyn’s ostrich eggs. (She also sent two eggs to the Clintons for their White House Easter Egg Roll.)
Perchyshyn sits at a desk and works under an illuminated magnifying glass, beginning with a hollowed-out egg, still white as alabaster. Seated on a plum-colored office chair, she wraps a soft tape measure around the center of the egg and draws quadrants lightly with a pencil. Then, she applies wax over the places on the egg that she wants to remain white.
The tool for applying the wax is a kistka, a stick with a small metal funnel at the end. The funnel is heated in the flame of a candle and, while still warm, scoops up beeswax, which flows out the bottom like a makeshift crayon. Perchyshyn’s mother designed her own kistka when she first came over from Ukraine, using the metal tip of a shoelace. Perchyshyn’s modern kistka is electric.
With her tool, she draws a wax line with a loop at the end, and then two more. Repeating the pattern eight times, she is now ready to dip. She drops the egg into a jar of yellow dye and holds it down with an empty plastic bottle she got from her hairdresser, printed with the word “neutralizer.”
When the egg is soaked yellow, Perchyshyn spoons it out and wipes off the liquid with a paper towel she has reused several times. She repeats the process twice more, drawing with wax and then dyeing, first pink and then emerald green. When the design is complete, Perchyshyn holds the egg next to a candle’s flame and the wax melts off, revealing the colors beneath.
This simple egg took an hour; Perchyshyn’s more intricate designs can take much longer. She never knows which it’ll be when she starts.
“I make so many eggs and I don’t always make them perfect,” she said. “And it’s fun to take the wax off and I go, ‘Ooh, great, it’s better than I thought.’ ”
She refuses to call herself an artist. “I just make things,” she said.
Modesty aside, she is proud of how her work connects her to people. She even frames her fan mail. Years ago, a woman wrote to tell her that an egg with a rooster on it, presented as an Easter gift to her daughter-in-law, ushered in a miracle.
The daughter-in-law was recovering from cervical cancer, and doctors said pregnancy was a long shot. But after the birth of her child, she confided in her mother-in-law that the gift of Perchyshyn’s egg had worked. Her baby, she told her, was conceived on Easter Sunday.
Sharyn Jackson • 612-673-4853