Maine artist and teacher Erica Qualey specializes in Ukrainian pysanky, where she uses beeswax as a tool to scribe designs on eggs. PHOTO COURTESY OF ERICA QUALEY

The art of pysanky

Maine artist and teacher Erica Qualey specializes in Ukrainian pysanky, where she uses beeswax as a tool to scribe designs on eggs.

TOWN HILL — Artist and ArtWaves MDI instructor Erica Qualey has been teaching Ukrainian pysanky – the art of egg decorating with traditional patterns using a wax-resist method – to islanders. 

Qualey, who is from South Bristol, attended the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York, where she received a fine arts degree.  Over the years, Qualey has illustrated books, painted pottery, done graphic design and much more. The artist has worked for a variety of businesses from publishing companies to advertising firms. “I’ve just always done art; it’s just like breathing for me,” she said. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Qualey has offered pysanky workshops to islanders at ArtWaves and online via Zoom. After learning of the egg artform almost 20 years ago, Qualey practiced every April until the art project evolved into an Easter tradition for her family. “I’ve had lots of people ask me to teach them, so I decided to start,” she said. 

This April, ArtWaves Executive Director Liz Cutler taught a class at the Town Hill nonprofit based on Qualey’s past instruction. 

Qualey has accumulated a gamut of pysanka made from the eggs of different-sized birds over time. “I’ve actually accumulated like dozens of them and it’s really fun to pull them out every year because different people have made them; it stirs up memories for me,” she said. 

According to Qualey, the history of pysanky predates Christianity and was used in Ukraine for both pagan and Christian religions. Originally, the eggs were traded and displayed as charms wherever was appropriate.  

“They would create eggs as offerings for a bountiful harvest or fruitful summer,” Qualey said.  

Eventually the eggs were used as symbols for rebirth in Christianity and introduced to Poland.  “I think these eggs are so old that you find it a little bit of a different story, depending on where you’re reading about them,” Qualey said.  

Eastern settlers brought the tradition to American. To this day, it remains a tradition in Ukraine. 

A specific tool, called a kistka, is required to execute the art of Ukrainian pysanky.

Using a special, metal-tipped tool called a kistka, the artist scribes fine lines of wax to make kaleidoscope-like patterns. The kistka, used to draw desired designs on emptied eggs, gets filled with beeswax and heated over a small candle. Drained and wax-scribed eggs are dipped in dye to create a pysanka. 

In addition to the art of pysanky, Qualey has taught many painting, watercolor composition and art fundamentals lessons to islanders at ArtWaves. She also teaches online and at other locations in Maine whenever her schedule allows. “I’ve contracted through other different places like ArtWaves MDI and the Farnsworth Art Museum to do art workshops with people,” Qualey said. Occasionally Qualey will teach batik, another art technique that involves wax. 

At 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 14, Qualey will host an Art of Pysanky Facebook Live session to raise funds for Ukrainian children. The event is free and donations are encouraged.  

Qualey will also raffle off tickets for a chance to win three of her pysanky eggs. Virtual attendees will have a chance to tune in to her pysanka-making process. With a bit of instruction and the right equipment, Qualey wants people to know that the activity is easy to learn.   

Erica Qualey teaches Ukrainian pysanky, the art of decorating Easter eggs with traditional folk patterns.

Ninah Rein

Ninah Rein

Writer at Mount Desert Islander
Ninah Rein, an MDI native, covers news and features in the Bar Harbor area. She is glad to be back in Maine after earning a bachelor's degree in San Diego from the University of California.
Ninah Rein

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