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In Ukrainian eggs, people are finding a way to connect and help

One legend about pysanky eggs tells of them having the power to keep evil from destroying the world

Stephanie Cheeseman's family made these pysanky eggs. (Stephanie Cheeseman)

There is a legend Stephanie Cheeseman grew up hearing about Ukrainian eggs that she has thought about often lately.

In it, an evil creature is held back from destroying the world by chains that bind it to a cliff. Whether that creature remains restrained, and the world at peace, is up to humanity. The strength of those chains is tied to the number of Ukrainian eggs people make. More eggs, and they tighten. Less eggs, and they loosen.

“I know it’s just a legend,” Cheeseman tells me on a recent evening. “I know it’s just a story. But there’s something profound there to me.”

She heard that legend from her mother, who heard it from her mother, and on a Saturday in March, Cheeseman shared it with a roomful of people who attended a workshop in Virginia to learn how to make the elaborately decorated eggs, which are called pysanky.

“We need to make as many as we can because so many people are displaced and cannot make any this year,” Cheeseman told those who gathered that day. “If this legend holds true, then it is our job to make as many as we can to keep evil at bay.”

After Russia invaded Ukraine, Cheeseman knew she couldn’t do much from Northern Virginia, but she also knew she couldn’t do nothing. Her late grandparents on her mother’s side were both Ukrainian, and her grandfather grew up there. The family still has relatives who live in western Ukraine. They have been converting a school into a shelter to house people who have been forced to flee more dangerous areas.

Realizing Easter was approaching, Cheeseman sent an email to the Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Dunn Loring and asked if she could hold a pysanky workshop. She had held the workshop in the past, but this time, she explained, she wanted to use the event to raise money that would go toward aiding Ukrainians.

“Each time has felt very important, but this year felt very urgent to me,” she says. “I wanted to do something to help, and that was the only way I knew how to help.”

Here's how you can help people in Ukraine

Pysanky eggs are intricate displays of patience and creativity. They take time and care (especially since fire is involved) to complete. A person just has to glance at them to see that.

But people who have embraced the art, either as part of their heritage or as a discovered interest, also know this: There are layers of symbolism involved in creating them. The designs are “written” with beeswax, not painted, and each egg tells a story. Everything from the colors of the dyes to the images depicted hold meaning. One shape might be a plea for fertility and another a prayer for protection.

If you talk to a person who has spent years creating pysanky eggs, they will tell you all of that, probably with enthusiasm.

They will also probably tell you that making them this year feels more important than ever.

“Creating these eggs has definitely taken on a new significance for me,” Diane Smalls says. “I am not Ukrainian, but this art form has brought so much to my life. I felt like I had to do something to help and support Ukraine. I am in a lovely community of pysanky artists. We are all trying to do our part.”

Smalls, who lived in Northern Virginia before recently moving to California, sells the eggs through Etsy and is donating half of her profits to World Central Kitchen, which is providing meals to Ukrainian families.

Coreen Weilminster, who teaches pysanky in Maryland, has raised more than $1,500 for World Central Kitchen through an online fundraiser she set up. When she holds classes, she also shares the story of that shackled creature who is waiting for people to stop making the eggs. She tells participants they are “saving the world, one egg at a time.”

Artist Sarah Bachinger started the Pysanky For Peace project with the goal of creating and collecting 100,000 pysanky eggs to raise funds for humanitarian efforts in Ukraine and bring awareness to the tradition. A website for the project offers dates for upcoming workshops, a photo gallery of the eggs that have been contributed so far and a page that describes the history of pysanky, including how the art form would have been lost if it were up to Russia.

“During the Soviet era — Russia banned the practice in Ukraine as Stalin was set on eliminating all religion and religious practice and symbols of faith,” reads that page. “During this time no evidence of pysanka existed, no exhibits or no books on the subject. Some families still practiced the art in secret, with the knowledge that they could be killed if caught. … However, the art and practice was protected, and kept alive and well by the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States and Canada during this time and eventually returned to Ukraine.”

The first time I encountered Ukrainian eggs was at Virginia Tech in the weeks after a student shot and killed 32 people and then himself. People from across the world were sending gifts to the campus as a show of support and shared grief. Some of those items were set aside and stored as part of an archive. They included thousands of origami paper cranes, prayer flags and 32 pysanky eggs, each featuring the name of a victim. The person who sent them attached a note that began, “Eggs symbolize the promise of new life but they are also so, so fragile.”

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“Each egg is considered a prayer, so that was 32 prayers,” Cheeseman’s mother, Chris Terpak-Malm, says when I tell her about them. “Somebody put their heart into that when they made those eggs.”

Terpak-Malm, who lives in Northern Virginia, learned pysanky from her mother and has been teaching the art to people in the region for decades. She has taught her children and her grandchildren. She has taught her friends and her church community. She has taught strangers.

Recently, she and her oldest daughter, Kalyna Watts, held a pysanky workshop at an elementary school in Fairfax County. They helped students in the fourth-grade class of Watts’s daughter create their own designs.

The Friday before that, Terpak-Malm invited friends to her home to make pysanky eggs. Then on that Saturday, she helped Cheeseman host the church workshop. Two dozen participants and six volunteers attended the event, which raised more than $2,700, an amount that far exceeded Cheeseman’s expectations. She had asked participants to consider donating $20 each.

Encouraged by the event’s success, the two plan to hold another workshop at the church April 9. Terpak-Malm says she and her daughters have also discussed finding more opportunities to share the tradition with people.

“We want to teach as many people as possible about pysanky, about this art form, that Ukraine exists, that Ukraine has a long, ancient culture of doing things, that we are not Russian,” she says. “We just want to keep Ukraine in the hearts and minds of everyone as this year goes on because this is not a one-day battle. This is a siege. This is the Kremlin trying to turn Ukraine into rubble.”

Most of her life, whenever she mentioned Ukraine, Terpak-Malm had to explain where it existed on a map. Now people know where it is, and she hopes they keep paying attention to what is happening there.

Her father, Michael Terpak, grew up in Ukraine, worked for Voice of America and wrote a memoir that he published in 1998. In recent weeks, family members have shared with one another a paragraph from it: “Of greatest satisfaction to us is the fact that Ukraine, almost totally united, has become free. Her future is in her own hands. She is equal among equals both in peace and in her readiness to defend this peace in the world.”

As Cheeseman reads it aloud on the night we talk, her voice breaks.

“He had such hope,” she says.

This year, two family members her grandfather never got to meet made their first pysanky eggs. One was Cheeseman’s 2-year-old daughter, and the other was her almost 2-year-old nephew. The toddlers’ designs were just scribbles, but they served their purpose. They helped make those chains a little tighter.

“Myths are myths,” Terpak-Malm says. “But I love the idea that we can keep evil at bay. If people are making eggs and their whole world is this one little, fragile egg, it’s almost existential. You realize that there is so much more to the world than you, and maybe we can influence it a little bit.”