Karen Soohy shows students how to make Ukrainian Easter Eggs

Eric Burk Photo/Gila Valley Central: Karen Soohy teaches students about symmetry while showing them how to make Ukrainian 'psanky' Easter eggs.

By Eric Burk


SAFFORD – Legend says a man named Simon was traveling through the Middle East thousands of years ago, carrying a basket of eggs when he saw a man walking to his own execution carrying a heavy cross. Simon left his basket and helped the man carry the cross. After Jesus’ crucifixion, Simon returned to his basket and found that his eggs had been turned into beautifully colored works of art, sparking the tradition of painting eggs at Easter.

Continuing that tradition, Karen Soohy taught two classes of third-grade students how she colors Easter eggs in a Ukrainian style, known as psanky. Soohy met with Hillary Waters’ and Kim Martin’s third-grade classes at Dorothy Stinson Elementary School on Tuesday morning. Waters invited Soohy as part of a unit studying eastern Europe.

“We try to bring in an art project for all the books we read,” Waters said.

Eric Burk Photo/Gila Valley Central: Karen Soohy has been making psanky since the 1980s.

The classes recently read “Letters for Rifka”, which tells about a 12-year-old Russian refugee who immigrates to America in the early 1900s. They also read “Rechenka’s Eggs”, which is about a woman who makes psanky for an Easter festival in Moscow.

Although she likes the beautiful legends linking egg painting to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Soohy taught the class that egg painting at Easter was originally a pagan tradition that was adopted by Christians when they adopted pagan festivals into Christian liturgy.

Waters’ daughter was in Martin’s class a few years ago when they did the Ukrainian unit. Inspired by the classes, Waters and her daughter began researching the eggs. Martin and Waters incorporate that research into their classes now.

“Anything that piques their interest, of course you’ve got to have them do more research into it, and they get excited when they start learning more and more about (a topic),” Martin said.

This year was Soohy’s first time presenting to the classes. Soohy’s demonstration was a hit with the students, who were quiet and attentive, asking thoughtful questions about the designs and techniques.

The word ‘psanky’ comes from ‘pysaty’, which means ‘to write.’ Soohy uses a tool called a kitska to draw fine lines of beeswax on the eggs, controlling which parts of the eggs are dyed which colors.

Eric Burk Photo/Gila Valley Central: Karen Soohy shows how to use a kitska and beeswax to make designs on the egg.

Both colors and designs have meanings. White stands for purity, black for remembrance. Pine needles represent long life, flowers and vines represent love and roses represent Jesus. Soohy’s designs are symmetrical and can take anywhere from half an hour to an hour-and-a-half to complete. Demonstrating the process to the class allowed Soohy to teach cultural topics and technical details, including symmetry, heat and moisture. Soohy is a former computer science teacher but has always enjoyed craft making.

Eric Burk Photo/Gila Valley Central: Karen Soohy completes a psanky by melting the beeswax off to reveal the colors underneath.

“It’s very methodical, you don’t just draw,” she said.

Soohy hollows eggs by warming them to room temperature, then poking a pin hole in the top and a slightly larger hole in the bottom, breaking up the yolk inside with a needle. Then the artist blows into the bottom, forcing the contents out the top. With a lit candle, Soohy melts beeswax into a cone-shaped reservoir on the kitska. The wax flows out the bottom in a fine line, which Soohy uses to fill holes in the egg and section it into symmetrical parts. Moisture inside the egg will ruin it, so the shell must be dried and dye must not get inside. Kitskas, beeswax and dyes are available online at fairly low cost.

Using the kitska, Soohy first draws the designs she wants white-colored and submerges the egg in the lightest colored dye. Her dyes are toxic and permanent and are so strong they will eat plastic, so she uses marshmallow creme jars to hold the dyes. Next, she adds a wax design for the color she just dyed. The wax prevents the shell from absorbing the dye, so the wax pattern preserves whatever color that is applied.

Soohy uses several dyes per egg, allowing the shell to sit in the dye for three to four minutes, but the time can vary depending on the egg and the dye. Store-bought eggs may have chemicals on the shell that prevents the shell from absorbing the dye as thoroughly. The darkest color is applied last, and Soohy leaves the egg in that dye a little longer.

Then, with a candle, Soohy melts all the wax off revealing the colors and designs. She melts the plugs in the ends first, to prevent any interior moisture from vaporizing, pressurizing and exploding the egg. After all the wax is removed, Soohy plugs the ends of the holes again and the egg is complete. Soohy then gives the psanky away as a gift or sells it. Anyone who wishes to purchase a psanky can do so by emailing her at ksoohy@gmail.com .