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Easter pysanky workshop in Thunder Bay uses artform to show resilience as Ukraine, its culture under attack

Apr 17, 2022 10:41AM ● By Editor
A selection of different pysanky decorated by members of the Ukrainian community in Thunder Bay in April. The hollowed-out eggs were on display at the Ukrainian Catholic church in the northwestern Ontario city. Photo: Olivia Levesque/CB

By Olivia Levesque · CBC News · Thunder Bay • April 15, 2022 

People in Thunder Bay, Ont., gathered earlier this month for a special workshop on pysanky — or Ukrainian Easter eggs — and this year's session took on new meaning as the participants turned to the artform to channel resilience.

As they huddled around tables, with candles burning in the centre, some chatted while others stayed focused on the task at hand.

Coffee, freshly baked Ukrainian bread and the smell of blown-out candles filled the air as they worked away at their pysanky.

"You end up with a magical piece of art," said Cathy Paroschy-Harris, as she carefully melted away beeswax from everyone's eggs in a little toaster oven.

A stylus is used to apply melted beeswax onto the egg. Layers of wax and coloured dyes are alternated to create unique designs. Photo: Andrew Nguyen/CBC

Cathy Paroschy-Harris, one of the workshop teachers and organizers, shared that the tradition each Easter has always been special. But this year's event was particularly emotional for her, on many levels.

"My mom recently passed away, and her dying wish when she passed away was — she was in a long-term care home — and she asked that my sister and I make pysanky for all the staff," she explained while holding a pysanka she had made with her mom over 20 years ago.

"So it turned out that my sister ended up making two dozen … and we were labelling them and packaging them up, and it wasn't until we were finished with the last package that she took her last breath. So the pysanky meant a lot, and still do," she said as her eyes welled with tears.

Ukrainian Canadians lean on tradition for strength 

But the workshop also took on new meaning this year as the war in Ukraine continues — it's been two months since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops over the border.

Cathy Paroschy-Harris and Walter Warywoda, organizers of the workshop in Thunder Bay, have fond memories of creating pysanky as children. Photo: Olivia Levesque/CBC

The annual workshop usually raises funds for the Chaban Ukrainian Dance Group in Thunder Bay, but proceeds this year are going toward humanitarian efforts in Ukraine.

Those at the workshop also sported shirts that read "Stand with Ukraine," and some wore blue-and-yellow ribbons over their hearts.

"There's still a lot of fear and disbelief in some respects. But we try and celebrate the religious occasions like Easter, as we normally would," said Walter Warywoda, president of the Thunder Bay branch of the Ukrainian League of Canadians.

Paroschy-Harris said volunteers were baking Paska bread, a traditional braided Ukrainian bread, until after midnight the day before the workshop as part of the fundraiser.

Workshop participants lined up in the basement of the Ukrainian Catholic church as they waited to have their eggs dipped in dye by volunteers. Photo:Olivia Levesque/CBC

"To be able to share the richness of both the cuisine, the arts, the heritage … so people have an understanding and an appreciation of it, because I think that's what helps us all respect each other more," she said. "And pysanky is a very, very important part of Ukrainian culture."

The art of pysanky has been around for centuries and uses a traditional method of "writing" the eggs with melted beeswax through a stylus called a kistka. The wax preserves the colours on the eggs as they sit in dye baths. Then, the process is repeated, creating a layered effect.

The creations are meant to tell a story with symbols of life and nature, and traditional folk patterns.

The method is something Karling Draper has been working to master through the years. Now, she volunteers at the event to help others with the process.

"It's something that people can celebrate with us and it transcends cultures. It transcends nationalities. You don't have to be Ukrainian to make a pysanka," Draper continued.

Both Draper and Paroschy-Harris said they believed creating the eggs this year was particularly important as Ukraine and its culture are under attack.

Karling Draper, who has been creating pysanky for years, says she's proud to show others the artform, which allows her to feel more connected to her heritage. Photo: Olivia Levesque/CBC

They both said making the pysanky would send strength to the people of Ukraine and show pride in the culture.

"They will last forever if you take care of them properly and … I think there's a legend that says as long as pysanky are being written that evil will stay away from our lands," explained Draper.

"We can kind of keep that evil away from us here. But also we can send those thoughts to Ukraine as well."

To see the original post and listen to an audio version of this story, follow this link too the CBC Thunder Bay website.

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