Sunset Resident Paints Pysanky, Ukrainian Easter Eggs
By Erin Bank
When Susan Bell was a little girl, her mother received a Ukranian Easter egg, called a pysanky, from a friend, an immigrant from Eastern Europe. Bell remembers admiring its bright colors and designs and would look forward to each spring when the egg was put on display.
“I loved it so much, I broke it,” she said.
Fast forward to the 1990s, the first year Bell lived in San Francisco. She has always been a crafty person. One day, when she was browsing around the now-closed Hobby Co. store on Geary Boulevard in the Richmond District, she came across a kit to make the pysanky, and memories of her childhood came rushing back.
The first one she made, she said, was “tragic.” But she was hooked and started making several each spring in the traditional way of the wax-resist method. As Bell explained, this method involves alternating drawing designs in beeswax everywhere you don’t want the color, dipping the egg in dye, and then repeating the process for each color. Then, the wax is melted off to reveal the intricate designs. This method has been used for centuries, since before Christianity arrived in the region. Now pysanky are still used for decoration and celebration around the Easter holiday.
“People would get together and make them in groups,” Bell said.
Each egg contains symbols of Christianity (crosses and fish) or other traditional designs, such as a pine branch for prosperity, an acorn for wealth and a deer or chicken for life and growth. Traditional designs are usually symmetrical and brightly colored with yellows and reds.
Bell turns to the internet or books for inspiration for her own designs. Depending on the size of the egg – from duck to chicken to ostrich – Bell chooses the style and sketches it out with pencil first. She then carefully applies the wax and the dyes. The entire process can take up to five hours for the most complicated designs on the largest eggs.
With eggs from her neighbors (including the Lie Family Coop), and beeswax that comes from the beehives she keeps in her Sunset neighborhood backyard, Bell’s pysanky have a distinct San Francisco connection.
Although Bell had been painting several pysanky each spring – in addition to her job as a postpartum doula and other craft projects – she found it hard to get inspired to paint pysanky during the COVID-19 pandemic. But when Russian invaded Ukraine, Bell saw many people wanting to donate and support the people of Ukraine, including members of her neighborhood mothers’ group. Bell set up a silent auction with the group, selecting three eggs she could part with and also offered a custom egg, which she designed with hens and chicks and the names of the children in the lucky winner’s family.
Not only did the auction raise money to donate to charity supporting Ukraine, so did the classes Bell started offering at Little Star Preschool and over Zoom, due to the immense interest people started showing in the pysanky. She was happy to have introduced the art to new people.
“It’s a nice hobby for people to pick up. The first couple don’t turn out great. But once you learn the basic rules to follow, you can make something really beautiful,” Bell said.
Indeed, it took Bell a few years before she felt happy with her work. Now, after making more than 50 pysanky, she finds it meaningful to look at her old eggs to see how far she has come. She has also experimented with her own non-traditional designs.
“I keep going back to the traditional style,” she said. “They feel more meaningful to me and remind me of my family and being a little girl.”