The egg-centric art

Claudia Harden showed off her stunning Ukrainian eggs for the first time during San Benito Open Studios

ADOPTED TRADITION Aromas’s Claudia Harden was inspired to create pysanky—a sacred Ukrainian holiday art. Photo: Tina Baine

When we talk about eggs, we’re almost always talking about the content of eggs—as much a part of the American morning as the rising sun, the resemblance to which is one of the egg’s most appealing features.
But if we talk about the egg not nutritionally but aesthetically—that is, as an object of art—then the part of the egg that we preserve (the yummy part) and the part that we discard (the shell) gets neatly inverted.
Claudia Harden’s home in Aromas is full of eggs, though their proximity to the kitchen is purely coincidental. Her eggs are, to be precise, egg shells, each with a tiny hole drilled in its bottom to empty it of its yolk. They are chicken eggs, goose eggs, and ostrich eggs, which vary not only in size but stability.
In the Harden household—which Claudia shares with her husband Chris—the egg is a canvas for an artform that in its detail and metaphorical symbolism is often breathtaking. It’s called pysanka or (in its plural form) pysanky, and it’s essentially the mother of all Easter egg art.
Pysanky eggs are deeply rooted in Ukrainian folk art, and the artform is thought to date back more than a thousand years to the pagan, pre-Christian era of the region.
And it’s an art that preoccupied Claudia Harden for more than 30 years.
For the first time, Harden was a participant in the San Benito Open Studios Tour, which took place April 14 and 15 in several sites around Aromas, San Juan Bautista and Hollister. It marked a significant moment in her long-time fascination in creating pysanky eggs. From the time she first discovered the art, way back in the Reagan era, to just last November, she never sold her decorated eggs.
“I always just gave them to people,” she said, standing near about a few dozen of her elegantly displayed eggs. “Selling them never quite felt right.”
That changed last fall at a crafts fair at the Aromas Grange when she was prevailed upon by friends and fans of her work to offer the eggs for sale. She sold 60 of them.
After that highly successful product launch, the universe gave Harden another sign that her egg art was moving into a new realm: She found a new, affordable and locally available source for ostrich eggs.
“Now, all I want to do is ostrich eggs because they’re just so impressive,” she said. “I wish there was something bigger than an ostrich egg, but there isn’t.”
The designs on pysanky eggs invite close inspection. There are repeating lines, geometric forms and abstract shapes, as well as representational images of animals, trees, plants, people and other symbols that carry deep meaning both in the context of Ukrainian folk art and for the contemporary California admirer.
To be clear, these shapes and images are not painted on the egg, neither in Ukrainian tradition nor in how Harden works. This is what’s known as a “wax-resist” art. The imagery is drawn on the surface of the egg in beeswax by a tool known as a kistka. The egg is then dyed in colors in a series of steps from lightest color to darkest, each time the wax “saving” lines from the dye. The Indonesian art of batik works on the same principle, but on fabric.
A chicken egg can take up to two or three hours to complete in this process. But, Harden said, an ostrich egg can eat up nine or ten hours. In recent years, she also been leading informal workshops in her home for friends and neighbors—particularly her fellow artists in Aromas Hills Artisans. She estimates that she has between 300 and 400 finished eggs at her home.
Harden lays no claim to Ukrainian ancestry. But she did grow up in northern Washington state, near the Canadian border and developed a fascination with the Doukhobors, a sect of dissident Russian pacifist Christians, who settled nearby.
“I would hear all about them as a kid,” she said. “They lived communally, and you could drive up through the hills in Canada and see these big square communal houses, with 30 or 40 people living in them.”
Her interest in Russian culture continued into her college years at the University of Washington. She wanted to study the Russian language, but was persuaded not to by an academic advisor.
Fast forward many years later. Harden is working as a teacher in Tucson, Arizona, leading her students through a unit on the Soviet Union and Russian history. It is here when she meets an old woman, a native Ukrainian and World War II concentration-camp survivor, who agrees to share her passion for pysanky eggs with Harden’s sixth-graders. Harden herself knew nothing of the Ukrainian egg art, but it inflamed her lifelong curiosity of all things Russian.
“She brought in the very first egg that she did when she first came to the United States,” remembered Harden. “And this was the mid ’80s, so that egg was already 40 years old or so by that time. And on this egg was a tree with all these broken branches. She started telling us about the symbolism, and it became clear it had to do with her family. All her family was gone.”
From that point forward, Harden was entranced by pysanky art. And, though occasionally she’ll veer off into more expressive contemporary ideas, for the most part, her art sticks closely to traditional Ukrainian designs and motifs. One of those old Ukrainian traditions is that egg art was to be exclusively a woman’s activity, and that custom prohibited men from doing it. Women usually dyed their eggs as part of a sacred ritual, often during Lent to be finished and presented at Easter.
In modern-day California, of course, such customs don’t exist anymore. But, Harden has found, interest in creating the egg art comes almost exclusively from women.
“In all the classes that I’ve done, I don’t think I’ve ever had a guy do it,” she said. “I’ve certainly never said that men aren’t allowed. They are. But they don’t have as much interest as women.”
If there is any symbol that would appeal to women on a deeper level than men, it would have to be the egg, which is the definitive product of the female in nature.
“I’ve always loved eggs,” said Harden, the mother of identical twin sons. “There’s something so innate in us, especially women, when it comes to eggs.”
The Ukranian woman who first inspired Claudia Harden’s interest in pysanky stressed that the eggs must never be “blown out” (emptied of its yolk). But that’s one tradition that makes any long-term interest in the hard problematic. If a tiny crack develops in an egg with its yolk still inside, it could easily rot and destroy the art.
“She would say that you’re never supposed to blow out your eggs, but if it doesn’t have the egg yolk inside, then you’ve negated what they stand for, which is new life. I did that for a while, but after a couple of years, I lost quite a few. So I gave up on that. I’m sure she would be horrified.”
For more information about Claudia Harden and her pysanky, email [email protected].

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