The ostrich egg’s clean surface seems to glow under the light, causing a stark contrast to the thin blue lines squirming their way across the shell. The lines outline flowers and other shapes that will eventually be turquoise, blue and white on the deep purple background.
Tina Atterbury Karvonen has been writing pysanky, a traditional Ukranian art involving wax and dye on an egg shell, for around twenty years.
“Every color, every line has a meaning in the Ukrainian culture, so if someone gives one to you, it’s a blessing because they’re good wishes,” she said before pointing to a finished pysanka. “For instance, this design that I did; the main motif is a windmill and that’s for fertile crops, prosperity.”
The shell is also decorated with hearts, meaning love, in the shape of pussy willows for spring. The warmth of the sun is represented by yellow lines, with red providing passion and health. The black background is the darkest hour before dawn that helps the white representing purity stand out.
“I’ve never taken a class. I’m self-taught in all my art,” she said before adding with a laugh, “I don’t do rules. Rules are just no fun.”
Eggs with a purpose
The eggs vary in size, from large ostrich eggs to small chicken eggs. Ostrich eggs, such as the one she was working on during a rainy Thursday afternoon, need to be smoothed by soaking in an acid bath of vinegar first. Chicken and goose eggs, however, have smoother surfaces that do not require prep work.
Ostrich eggs come to her emptied out from a farm in Arizona. Goose eggs are also purchased out of state and arrive in packages of 100 cleaned-out eggs. She often empties chicken eggs after creating the designs, as is the traditional method she was taught, rather than before.
Bees wax is melted over a candle and applied to the shell surface using a sharp metal tool to stop dye from setting in particular places when dipped.
This means she must start with lighter colors, such as yellow, and then build layers of darker dyes on top of that. In order to keep the eggs fully submerged, she places filled water bottles or quart-sized jars, with a paper-towel buffer, on top of the eggs to weigh them down without breaking the shells. A small wax plug keeps the egg from filling with dye when it is submerged.
After several hours, the egg is removed, dried and then another layer of polyurethane wax is rubbed onto the shell. Once that wax is dry, a candle flame melts it on and creates a protective and shiny coating. Then comes the hard part: making a small hole in the bottom and top of the egg to blow the insides out.
The time it takes to create an egg — which can be five hours or more — means that Karvonen is often hesitant to throw any away, even if they don’t turn out the way she wanted. She said she gives away many of them, sells some, donates them to be auctioned off and hangs on to many.
“I have eggs all over the house, they’re everywhere,” she said.
Coming to Hoquiam
When her now ex-husband told her to pack up just a few things that fit in the car to move across country, a carton of pysanky sat beneath her seat the entire ride from Virginia to Washington. She would later stay after a falling out with her husband lead him back east while her and her four children ended up in Hoquiam after living with her sister until they found an apartment.
As a single mother, a carton of eggs, several candles and a lot of dye provided a cheap way to keep her kids occupied. While they were living with her, writing pysanka served as a great activity to communicate with her kids and, while they were distracted, she often heard more candid stories from them. As the time came for each of them to move out, a pysanky kit was packed in with the rest of their belongings as something to do that wouldn’t get them into trouble.
“If you’re thinking about the design you’re putting on the egg, you’re focused on what those symbols mean and it does take time to do. You spend about five to eight hours on your egg. You’re thinking good thoughts about positive things the whole time you’re doing it. It’s soothing, makes you feel good and keeps you out of trouble,” she said.
She has since remarried and all of her children are grown and have moved out.
However, eggs are not her only canvas. Karvonen also creates paintings using tissue paper, such as the tiger hanging over her psyanka table in the work room. Her oil pastels and paints also get quite the workout when she’s feeling creative. She said her next project is to delve into watercolor.
A life of art
Her family knew they had an artistic protege on their hands due to a picture she drew in kindergarten. Elaine Anderson, her oldest sister, came home from high school to find a picture Karvonen had done in dark green crayon.
“It was done on one of those manila sheets of paper you got in elementary school … It was separated into quarters and had two girls walking toward and away from you. The ones walking toward you were made bigger and the ones walking away were smaller,” she said. “The dresses they wore also matched and the pattern changed from the back to front.”
This level of perception from a small child was so impressive it hung on the fridge for many years, Anderson said.
“She’s just so talented. All of her kids are equally talented,” she said. “They certainly inherited all the artistic talent in the family.”
Now Karvonen is very much a part of the artist community on the Harbor.
She is an active member of the Harbor Art Guild and serves as the show chairperson, who is part of the committee that delegates show themes, volunteers and participating artists. A friend of hers was the one to encourage her to initially join the guild.
“I hadn’t considered myself an artist, by any stretch. I mean I am creative and just like to paint but he wasn’t buying it,” she said.
Stuart May, who owns Fusions Gallery in Ocean Shores, sells some of Karvonen’s work there.
“The eggs get a lot of attention because people can tell how much work goes into them,” he said.
He had known her before through their time in the arts community, but once he saw her pysanky on display at Six Rivers Gallery, he knew he needed them at his. She also comes to Fusions two to three times a year to show the public how she decorates eggs.
“She’s just a nice enthusiastic person and her enthiusiasm spills around her,” he said. “Which is a good thing for an artist.”
Alexandra Kocik: 360-537-3928 or firstname.lastname@example.org and @DW_AKocik on Twitter