Pysanky, an egg decorating tradition, lives on in the Upstate

LEXINGTON — With her kistka (a funnel on a stick) in her hand, Paula Kennett is passionately trying to revive the ancient tradition of egg decorating called pysanky for people in South Carolina.

The artist in residence from St. John of the Cross Church in Batesburg made one of her many educational stops at Corpus Christi Church in Lexington. She did a presentation for the third- and fifth-grade religious education classes. During her talk she not only demonstrated the wax resistant technique that involves the alternate use of multiple dyes, but also gave the history and religious symbolism involved with this tradition that has pre-Christian roots.

Pysanky (or pisanki in Polish) is from the Slavic word pisac, which means “to write.” In her research, Kennett has found different countries used different symbols and colors. More rural areas liked to include nature where those living in cities might do more geometric patterns. Triangles would be a symbol of the Trinity; the butterfly would represent the resurrection, and dots would be Mary’s tears or stars.

Color also had importance. The color white represents purity, innocence and birth; and purple symbolizes royalty, faith and trust.

Kennett explained how an egg is used by many other cultures in conjunction with religious ceremonies and celebrations. For example, in Poland, the decorated eggs, representing new life and Christ’s resurrection, are just one component of the Easter basket that is blessed by the priest on Holy Saturday.

Other items in the basket, which is lined with a white cloth, are sausage/kielbasa or ham, symbolizing the establishment of the New Law, and horseradish, the bitter herb of Passover represents the bitter suffering of Jesus. Sweet butter is molded in the shape of a lamb that depicts the Lamb of God and the sweetness of his blessings; the Easter bread represents Jesus the bread of life, and salt is a sign of prosperity and justice. (“Celebrate Easter – Polish Style” by Lawrence G. Kozlowski)

These blessed eggs are then given as gifts like a visual prayer to the receiver, something Kennett still does.

The artist is putting the final touches on an Emu egg made to commemorate the birth of a friend’s grandchild. A married couple might be given an egg decorated with a hen or rooster, symbols of fertility, and a horse for prosperity.

Kennett also shared an interesting story of how some people place pysanky eggs on top of a newly dug grave. The family would return the next day, and if the eggs remained, the deceased soul was believed to have made it to heaven. If the eggs were no longer at the gravesite because they were stolen or taken by animals, more prayers were needed to ensure the soul passage to heaven.

Unfortunately during the communist occupation in Eastern Europe, there was intense religious persecution, and this religious art form was forbidden for 70 years. But a few people, despite the risk of imprisonment or death, continued making eggs secretly passing their beloved tradition to their children.

Kennett learned how to design the eggs from her Polish grandfather when she was 5, and the tradition continued through her teen years. They decorated every year during Lent. She said she quit when her younger sister’s eggs began to look better than hers.

Seven years ago, when a Ukrainian friend gave her dyes, wax and a kitska, Kennett resumed egg making.

In this short time, she has become one of the leading pysanky artists in the country creating all of her eggs freehand. She has been featured in The State newspaper and did a recent program for ETV’s “The Beat” that will be aired April 16 and Easter Sunday.

Her eggs are currently on display at the Lexington Main Library and the Batesburg branch.

As her popularity has spread so have the requests for her specialized eggs. Kennett has been commissioned to do many eggs, each egg uniquely different.

Cynthia Grimley, a Corpus Christi parishioner, came to the class with her daughter, Jennifer, and son, RJ.

“Watching Paula brought back memories of my childhood and my Polish ancestry,” said Grimley.

She recalled how her mother would start blowing eggs (the technique to remove the inside of the egg with a small hole) at the beginning of Lent.

“By Good Friday, we had dozens of eggs to dye which we would let dry and place on the branches of our Easter tree,” she said.

Kennett feels it is her mission to spread the art of pysanky because God gave her this gift for a reason.

“I encourage others to explore their own heritage and traditions because we are all the sum of those who came before us,” she said.