Egg Him On
You wouldn't think an egg could ward off evil or keep your house from burning down, unless, of course, you are familiar with pysanky, the Ukrainian folk art of elaborately dyed eggs. A Ukrainian friend of mine explained how the talisman works: The bright colors and ornate patterns on the pysanky (pronounced "peh-san-keh"), attract evil spirits. When the curious spirits come closer to investigate, they get sucked inside the egg and are trapped. O'ahu-based artist Kent West found the lure of the pysanky just as irresistible, and found himself drawn to the art form.
West is an unlikely pysanky expert. He was born in Colorado, does not have Ukrainian roots in his family tree and has never taken an art class in his life. "My artistic expression is inspired by my mother, a graphic artist. I grew up around art," he explains. His life turned eggy in 1987, when he picked up a National Geographic magazine that featured an article about Ukraine and pysanky art.
Pysanky comes from the Ukrainian word "to write." The eggs are a deeply spiritual art form. They are crafted around Easter, blessed in church and then given to family and respected outsiders as gifts. Each color and pattern has meaning, so the receiver of the egg gets a message. For example, a diamond shape symbolizes knowledge, wheat represents good health and curls are used for defense. The egg itself represents transformation and the cycle of life.
Although pysanky are traditionally made with whole, raw eggs, many contemporary artists prefer the safety of a blown-out egg, which is less likely to explode in a foul-smelling debacle. West works with duck, goose, rhea (a large, flightless bird found in South America) and ostrich eggs. Using a kistka, a pointed instrument, he draws on the eggs with hot beeswax. Then he mixes analine, a powdered dye, with distilled water and vinegar. The eggs get alternating layers of dye, then wax, then dye, which creates the different layers of color.
Working out of his Käne'ohe studio, West spends hours on each of his one-of-a-kind egg paintings. They are done in the pysanky style, but also reflect Hawaiian motifs. "Not only the flora and fauna, but also the amazing life in the sea," West says. "It's incredible to have an organic canvas-the egg-that is from the earth, and then put a nature scene onto it."