Ihor Kunasz on pysanky, tradition, and the Ukrainian diaspora
Interview by Eryka Dellenbach
Ihor Kunasz is a geologist and world-renowned expert in lithium. Of Ukrainian lineage, he moved to Tucson in 2000, and is the current president of the Ukrainian American Society of Tucson (UAST). Ihor learned the Ukrainian art tradition of pysanky, decorating eggs with intricate colors using a wax-resist technique, from his mother and has been practicing since he was seventeen. He demonstrates the artform annually in the Folk Arts area of Tucson Meet Yourself, an annual folklife festival in downtown Tucson produced by the Southwest Folklife Alliance.
What is pysanky? Can you share about the process and origins?
The origin of the name is “to write.” This is writing with beeswax on an egg and dying it. We don’t know how far back it goes, but apparently there is a very ancient pysanka that dates back 1,000 years ago. The local people figured it out because they had honey, so they had beeswax, and beeswax melts and cools very fast. What you do is you write designs on an egg with beeswax which seals the pattern. When the egg is white and you seal it, it stays white. So now you dip it in yellow so the shell changes color to yellow. The shell keeps on changing color, and you cover what colors you want to keep. The very last dye is brown or black. And now you have an egg covered with wax. What do you do? You go back to the flame and you melt the wax off and the patterns just pop up.
You never boil the egg, because originally for people an egg was a miracle. Life came out of an egg; it was something very precious. You always worked on a raw egg, because the egg has pores, just like your skin. And when you seal that, the pores are sealed. There is another practical reason for not boiling the egg. If you hard boil and crack open an egg it has this liquid slime in there. Well, that’s albumen. If you worked on an egg like that the albumen will seep through the pores, and just destroy all your pattern.
These are originally Carpathian Mountain style. They are very fancy, because the woods had many colors available: yellow from onions, red from beets, you had green. Now it’s aniline. We don’t use the original [dyes] anymore.
In the Easter tradition in Ukraine, only women (men never made a pysanky) has their own secret design. They work on it for three days—Holy Thursday, Friday, and Saturday—in the candlelight. At the end of the process they would use a bit of animal fat to give it a sheen. Once you remove the wax off the pores, the egg evaporates inside!
Today we like to have shiny eggs. The problem is if you cover it with polyurethane varnish, it does not dry up. You don’t want to be around that when it blows up on you. You have to empty it.
During Holy Week, people fast, and then on Sunday morning, each one comes with a basket where you have your babka [bread], ham, sausage, butter, salt, and horseradish. From the religious aspect, it is to remind you of the suffering of Christ, because horseradish is very tough, right? Then you have the eggs you’re going to eat, and they could be colored in a vegetable dye. You have the pysanky also in there. It’s covered with an embroidered cloth. After liturgy the priest comes to bless the food that you’re going to eat on Easter morning, and everybody opens up their basket. And then what happened? Oh, look at her egg. Oh, look at her design. Because they wouldn’t trade their designs. It’s a big tradition and even in the U.S. today we do it on Easter morning. We bring our baskets, and this is what we eat.
How did you end up practicing pysanky?
My mom used to make pysanky, but she had another style that she did, which is Boyko, from the northwestern part of Ukraine near Poland. The Poles do the same thing, different colors. What they have is a melted beeswax, and a pin with a head on it. What she would do, she would dip that and go on the egg. It starts thick, and it becomes thin, thick, thin, thick, thin and they do the patterns that way. When she saw that I did my first egg, I must have been 17 or so, she stopped. Because the tradition had been passed on. That’s how I interpreted it. And after that, it just went on. My children and my wife Zenya learned with me.
I’m thinking a lot about the war and situation in Ukraine. Can you share about the impact of that on you and on Ukrainian community in Tucson?
Let me point out something. There have been several stages of the Ukrainian diaspora. In the late 1800s, Ukrainians were trying to find a better life. They were peasants and they had a hard time. A lot of them went to Canada. The second movement included my grandfather, who came to Pennsylvania. I’m sure they all went to the coal fields. The third one was my wife’s generation–they escaped from the Soviets. This is in 1944 when the Soviets occupied western Ukraine. This is her story, and that’s political immigration. And now what do we have? We have what I call an economic emigration. These are people from Ukraine before the Russian war who came to the US. They’re doing very well and are a very industrious people. Now there is a subgroup of them: the emigres because of the war. This is a separate group, again, coming here for a better life, obviously. We have about fifteen or more families now that have been sponsored in Tucson and Oro Valley.
Now what we are seeing slowly is foreigners of Ukrainian background discovering that they are Ukrainian because of the [increased visibility of Ukrainian identity resulting from the] war. One US Census reported that in Arizona, 12,000 people have written that they have Ukrainian ancestry. I said, 12,000? Where are they? We are trying to recreate the diaspora but it’s going to be not with the early people who came and who have passed away. We have to recognize it’s going to be Russian speakers. Very often, Ukrainians from Ukraine, they ask me how I came to speak Ukrainian? Well, it was taught in schools. They can’t believe that because it was forbidden in the Soviet Union mostly. This is why the diaspora is going to change–they are totally different Ukrainians.
Our granddaughter, Melania, is 24 years old. She posts things about the war in Ukraine, you know, a year ago. Ukrainianism, there’s a lot of new music that is more of a modern type, not the old traditional Ukrainian singing. Maybe even rap. But with Ukrainian words. Post Euromaidan, it already started. There was a lot a lot of Ukrainian ethnicity that was brought into the music in 2014.
You participate in the annual folklife festival, Tucson Meet Yourself. What has your experience with the festival been like over the years?
It’s always a great opportunity, because most people just don’t know anything about Ukraine. Now they all do [because of the war]. What’s going to be different this time is that we decided that we are going to focus on the war in Ukraine, and the statistics of what happened. We have a group of people who have worked with the emigres who came over to tell them about their story as well.
What is the Ukrainian American Society of Tucson (UAST) and what do they do?
UAST has been here since the 1960s. They have been participating in Tucson Meet Yourself for a decade. UAST provided social events for the members, education, cultural events to provide opportunities for each member to learn about Ukrainian and American history, culture and art, and promote the understanding and goodwill of other cultural and ethnic groups. Everybody was active within it—the Swedes, the Fins, the Hungarians, the Poles, everybody. We have some people who are not necessarily Ukrainian who participate to reactivate the society.
Have you observed unifying elements across the different Ukrainian art forms?
I would think that the unifying element is that it’s fundamentally Ukrainian, whether it’s woodcarving, pysanky, or embroidery. And if you see the different art forms, you’ll see where they come from. I come from Western Ukraine, the Carpathians, where the designs are complex. If you go to Kiev, the embroidery there would be just red and black, that’s all. Or in Kharkiv, it will be blue, or a single color because they don’t have the vegetable dyes. But it’s all identifying you as a Ukrainian.
The Ukrainians had a problem with identity. This is why it was very difficult for them to create, if you wish, a nation. They were Boykos. They’re Hutsuls. Nobody said, “I’m Ukrainian.” That was one of the problems. Each one had their own particular way of doing this. If you are on the west side, you have a lot of vegetation so you can do a lot of intricate patterns. You go east, this is the steppes, so they tend to have red and white, for example, or perhaps green sometimes or blue, maybe, but never the intricate patterns that the Hutsuls or the Boykos do because they have access to all of the vegetation. The Poles on that side, the Slovaks, the Romanians do decorate pysanky, and the Hungarians tend to paint their eggs. The traditions get passed on.
How does maintaining the pysanky tradition and other Ukrainian art forms effect your life, and those in your community? Why is it important to keep these practices and knowledge alive?
Regarding Ukrainian pysanky, My uncle, who was allowed to go to Canada, had 30 pysanky Easter eggs to bring us as gifts. In Moscow they took it away from him before he boarded the plane to Canada, because it tells you something about Ukrainian ethnicity. Moscow made a point of not advertising the individual cultures. I’ve spoken to many people about why the Putin war. This has long been an intent by the czars of Russia to eliminate Ukrainian culture, period. And Putin is trying to accomplish this now. And it’s not working very well.
Once you work on an egg, you forget the world. It is very therapeutic. Today everything is so materialistic and speedy. You need something: click, click click. To sit down and spend two, three, or four hours on an egg, are you kidding? How do you teach the younger generation who are accustomed to instantaneous gratification to sit down and do this? My argument is that once you see the final product you want to do it. It brings peace and a calm. I like to do it simply because it’s fun.
They say children don’t have a span of attention. At Tucson Meet Yourself, some years I had 40 kids and adults sitting down and doing them. They marveled to see what happens when the process is done. Our grandchildren do it. With children, you do easy stuff. You don’t make complex patterns. But once they realize what they have created, they’re in, they’ll spend hours, no problem.
Eryka Dellenbach (they/she) is a semi-nomadic artist and educator working between film, performance, and experimental, practice-based ethnography. Born in Chicago and now living in Tucson, they are a capoerista with UCA Tucson Quilombolas and work primarily as a freelance, devotional filmmaker. You can learn more about their work on their website: erykadellenbach.com