With only a candle, beeswax, aniline dyes and a stylus called a kistka, Sofika Zielyk recreates the millennia-old Ukrainian tradition of painting Easter eggs, or "pysanky."
Zielyk works out of her cozy apartment on East Seventh St. in the heart of the East Village's Ukrainian community where she grew up. Her mother, who emigrated from Ukraine to New York following the second world war, sought to keep Ukrainian traditions alive, especially as the Soviet Union's takeover of the country eradicated many folk traditions.
Born in the 1960s, Zielyk painted her first egg when she was six.
"I remember when I was younger than six every Easter I would just sit and watch my mother doing eggs," she said. "And it was just this magical thing. There was a candle, candle flame, and everything was quiet."
Pysanky artists create the eggs through a simple but time-consuming process during which they use a kistka to trace intricate designs on egg surfaces with heated beeswax. The beeswax must be applied in successive layers in alternation with the desired colors. The beeswax, which turns dark when heated, is melted off the egg, revealing the different colored designs beneath. Finally, the egg is sealed with varnish.
Zielyk sells painted chicken eggs for $35 or more, while ostrich and goose eggs can cost upwards of $1,000. A native New Yorker, pysanky was just another tradition for Zielyk. But when she enrolled at New York University as an art history major, Zielyk realized that much of the world knew little about these beautifully painted eggs. Friends' enthusiastic responses to pysanky prompted Zielyk to turn a hobby into a part-time trade and eventually a full-time profession.
"I sort of fell into it, and I'm very happy I did because it's something I really love to do," Zielyk said. "I don't know which I like better: actually making the egg or learning about the stories, the symbolism and the history."
Rich with symbols, the first pysanky were made more than a thousand years ago by early Ukrainian women as a means of appeasing the sun god, from whom life was thought to come. Thus the eggs were often painted with an eight-pointed star or three-spoked solar wheel representing the sun. Other Ukrainians believed that pysanka, the plural of pysanky, kept the world from being destroyed by a monster chained to the Carpathian mountains of Western Ukraine.
The designs have changed little over the centuries. Even when the Ukrainian king converted to Christianity in 988, the symbols retained their form while taking on Christian meanings.
In 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Zielyk became the first Ukrainian American to exhibit pysanka at the Taras Shevchenko Museum in Ukraine. She has since shown her eggs all over the United States and will also travel to an international exhibition in Puerto Rico later this year. In addition, Zielyk conducts egg painting workshops at The Ukrainian Museum on East Sixth Street.
"It's the mystery involved," said Zielyk. "I am creating something that a woman did in her tiny village thousands and thousands of miles away believing that she was saving mankind from the evil monster. And I'm doing the same thing here in modern-day Manhattan."