The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

In the Spotlight

March 15, 2013

Egg-straordinary art: Jerome artist passing on his passion for pysanky

JEROME — Ron Wanko is an artist who offers people an alternative to the standard Easter egg coloring kits.

Wanko, 61, of Jerome, offers a chance for people of all ages to start a new holiday tradition by creating pysanky eggs.

Pysanky is the Ukrainian art of hand-painting eggs using simple tools and beeswax to create intricate designs. The practice is a Ukrainian custom that has been handed down for generations, usually by family members.

Wanko has offered traditional pysanky egg classes for decades and has been creating pysanky eggs himself since the age of 6.

“My grandmother was Austrian-Hungarian and was an influence,” he said. “My grandfather and father used a pin stuck in the end of a pencil to create their designs instead of a kistka.”

The kistka is a special tool to apply melted beeswax to an egg.

Wanko has conducted classes for thousands of adults and children throughout the area.

He has taught classes in elementary and high schools, arts centers, churches and colleges.

His workshops cover techniques for creating straighter lines, fixing minor mistakes in wax and dye, storage methods for preserving the eggs and methods for creating etched egg designs with vinegar.

Wanko, who once conducted as many as 40 classes a year, has multiple sclerosis and now does around three each year. He was diagnosed with the disease in 1975.

He often teams up with Paul Yakulich of Johnstown, who introduces beginners to the art.

The artists are completing a five-week decorating course at Holy Trinity Byzantine Catholic Church in Conemaugh.

“I do the intermediate and advanced students because

99 percent of the instructors won’t touch the advanced stuff,” Wanko said.

It’s not unusual for Wanko to be working on four eggs at once at his home.

“While waiting for one or two eggs to dry, I can be working on the others,” he said. “I give a lot away, especially to those people who have shown me a kindness such as a waitress or a person who waits to open a door for me.”

Wanko has produced some of the most elaborate and beautiful pysanky eggs in the region.

“I recently sold a fertility egg for $105 that took me between 12 to 15 hours to complete,” Wanko said.

He has eggs all over the world in people’s collections.

“I have two in Russia and a number of pieces sold to people from Florida to California and most states in between,” he said.

No special skills are needed, Wanko said, just patience to work through the various steps involved in designing, applying the wax and dying the egg.

The process begins with an egg and a design.

While some purists empty the egg before creating a design, Wanko waits until he is finished before placing a pin hole in one end to drain the contents.

His goal has been to conduct classes as a way to preserve the practice as an art form.

“Some artists keep many of the old-style secrets to themselves, but I want to share my knowledge,” he said. “The more a class knows, the more they want to learn.”

Wanko contends that everyone can decorate an egg.

“Of the thousands of students I have instructed, only one man didn’t finish an egg out of frustration,” Wanko said.

Wanko has conducted several classes at the Bottle Works Ethnic Arts Center in Cambria City and introduced the art form to a wide range of students.

“Ron has a masterful technique that he conveys to students,” said Rosemary Pawlowski, arts center executive director. “He has whet the appetite of many people for the art of pysanky.”

Wanko refuses to get upset when things don’t go as planned.

“My philosophy is if something goes wrong in life, pick yourself up and get going again,” he said.

Eggs often were decorated with symbols such as grapes or shovels and placed around fields to ensure a good harvest.

The religious aspect didn’t evolve until Christianity spread throughout Eastern Europe, and many symbols adopted spiritual meanings.

Dots, thorns and triangles symbolize Mary’s tears, Christ on the cross and the Trinity, respectively.

Other symbols include chickens and roosters for fertility.

Colors also have meaning, with brown symbolizing Mother Earth and a productive harvest and red meaning happiness, life, hope and peace.

Before beginning the process, an egg is washed in a mild detergent, and white vinegar and water are used to further clean its surface.

The area covered by wax will remain white when the egg is placed in a dye. After the dye dries, wax is applied to other sections and the egg is dipped into another color. Often, as many as four or five colors are used.

Wanko said there is nothing more disheartening than to work for 10 to 15 hours on an egg and have it break.

“But that’s part of the learning process,” he said. “I refrain from showing beginner students my more elaborate designs because it may intimidate them. But they have to understand that it is all done one line at a time.”

Classes are composed of a cross section of students, ranging in age from 3 to some in their 80s.

But Wanko’s age and MS are taking its toll.

“I find a way to get done the things I want to do,” he said. “

I’m not as good as I used to be when I was at my peak about 12 years ago,” he said.

Wanko is an active member in the Lions Club, but is concerned that younger people aren’t taking up the cause.

“We help the people who are less fortunate, but as older members pass on, we have fewer people to replace them,” he said. “Art is like life; we should live it to the fullest.”

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