By Susan Gallacher-Turner
As I looked through the Portland Open Studios Calendar and Tour Guide, I was captivated by the colorful, intricate designs of Robin Bown’s artwork. What was even more fascinating was the fact that these amazing art pieces were originally eggs. Chicken eggs. Goose eggs. Even ostrich eggs. In Robin’s hands, these ordinary edibles become delicate, detailed artworks. Many are her original designs and some are modeled after traditional Ukrainian-style dyed eggs. I had so many questions about the process, I asked Robin more about her amazing creations and here are some of her answers.
Q. Where did your interest in Ukrainian-style dyed eggs begin?
A. It’s a funny story. My best friend from college, Pat Jamieson, was watching a Reading Rainbow episode on public television. They read a book called Rechenka’s Egg by Patricia Polacco about Ukrainian egg decorating, and demonstrated the process on the show. Soon after that she ran into a small kit for creating the eggs and bought it. That fall, when I visited her in Montana, we tried it out and quickly became hooked. Thank goodness for books and instructions, as we had to teach ourselves the process.
After a few years, we realized that if we didn’t find an outlet for selling eggs, we wouldn’t have room or reason to do any more. So, we started doing art and craft shows and events. We do some shows together and some individually.
Q. Can you tell me more about the history and traditions of Ukrainian eggs?
A. It’s a tradition that’s at least 2000 years old, though probably even older. It’s not a medium that survives well over time, nor was it probably intended to last beyond the spring in the early years. Today, it’s done as much as a folk art form for sale as for its original purpose of celebrating Easter and spring.
Q. Do the designs have a meaning in that culture?
A. Oh, yes! Every design element has at least one, and sometimes multiple meanings. The tradition of egg decorating pre-dated the advent of Christianity in the Ukraine; so many elements have traditional solstice/spring symbolism—often related to farming, fishing, or life events like birth and death. Many of these symbols have taken on additional meanings for Easter and with a basis in Christianity. For example, nets originally were signs of prosperity (fishing was a major occupation), and now also represents Christ, the fisher of men. Even the colors have meaning. Traditionally eggs were given as gifts or left in the fields or orchards to promote good harvests.
Q. What kind of eggs do you use?
A. We use only domestic chicken and goose eggs. I prefer to buy them directly from producers. Home-grown eggs are usually stronger, have thicker shells (which translates into less breakage during the process), and have not been treated with cleaning chemicals that can effect the dyes. When I buy ostrich eggs, I have to specify that I don’t want them cleaned.
Q. How do you prepare the eggs for your art?
A. We blow our eggs, and then clean then carefully with dilute vinegar solution. Traditionally, they were left whole as they were not expected to last long, and if you don’t varnish them, most will eventually dry out – in a year or so. People don’t realize that eggs have pores that allow the developing chick to breathe, so they can also slowly dry out. However, since a few might rot and explode, we’ve heard several stories, we choose to blow them first to avoid accidents.
Q. Can you describe your process from start to finish?
A. Starting with a clean egg, we plug up the hole and using a craft lathe, I mark the basic form on the egg, or at least some register lines, with a hard pencil, being careful to make the lines light.
Then, I cover the white portions of the pattern with lines of hot beeswax. We use small wax funnels called kiskas to apply the wax. We have 4 different kiskas that have different size holes, creating lines from very fine to wide.
Once all the white areas are covered and you have to check carefully because there is no going back, I dip the egg in to the yellow dye for 5-10 minutes, remove it, pat it carefully dry and leave it on the drying rack for at least 30 minutes. I usually work on a couple of eggs so I can add wax to one while the other is dying or drying. The yellow lines are added in the same manner—covering the areas on the now-yellow egg that need to stay yellow.
Light green is the one exception to the progression from light to dark. We add the green to the general areas on the egg with a paint brush. Once dried, we cover the actual green portion, then put the egg into orange dye. Once dry, I cover the orange portions of the pattern, dye the egg red, dry the egg, cover the red parts with wax, and then dip in the background color. This is a dark color, often black, dark red or blue.
Now I let the egg dry overnight. At this point you can see the colors through the wax, so I have some idea how it looks. But, it’s still something of a mystery. Once the wax is removed in the oven set at its lowest temperature, I wipe it off carefully with a paper towel. The finished egg can now be varnished to protect it from water, or left natural.
A moderately complex goose egg with 5 colors could take 2-3 hours working time and 3 hours dying and drying.
Q. What types of coloring agents do you use?
A. We use dyes purchased from the Ukrainian Gift Shop—the primary source of Ukrainian egg supplies in this country. The dyes contain some vinegar—like most Easter egg kits—which helps set the color into the calcium of the egg shell.
Q. Where do you get the inspiration and ideas for the designs?
A. Sometimes I draw out the design on paper (I design some eggs while sitting in boring meetings). Other times, I start with a general pattern and develop it as I go.
Some of our ideas come from design books of Ukrainain eggs, others come from pictures of historic eggs. We generally mix and match historical components.
And after years of making eggs, we also design our own from traditional and non-traditional patterns as well as natural items like flowers, plants and animals. I have always been intrigued with Native American petroplyphs (rock art), and have incorporated some of these into my eggs—brown eggs are perfect for creating the rock art look.
Q. Tell me a little bit about your journey as an artist. Have you always been interested in art?
A. Yes. I started very young, as my mother was interested in art and we had a good art program in the schools. I even took summer art classes, for fun. As early as I can remember we did arts and crafts—in school and at home. I have enjoyed most types of art, though probably was more interested in the three-dimensional type like pottery, sculpture, etc.
Q. Take us on a virtual tour of your creative space.
A. I work on a bench/table in my den—a very small space. That’s one of the fun things about Ukrainian egg art is that, other than storage room for the dyes, you can operate easily on a card-table sized area. And if you use traditional kiskas you can work just about anywhere.
And the raw materials, egg shells, are easy to get and very inexpensive. We just blow eggs when we use them—breakfast and baking—and store the shells until we need them. I have a LOT of empty eggs—over 50 dozen chicken and probably 50 goose.
Creating art out of ordinary and not so ordinary eggs is a fascinating process. If you’d like to see it yourself, Robin will be at work in her studio as part of the Portland Open Studios Tour. You can visit her on October 18 and 19 by purchasing your Tour Guide at your local New Seasons or Art Media.