As I prepare my tools – a candle, stylus, beeswax, egg – I strike a match and light my candle. That simple act draws me into the world of the pysanka (Ukrainian Easter egg). The flame is my portal into the world of ancient Ukraine, where life revolved around legends and rituals, where people were content to believe in the intangible, where life moved to the slow yet relentless rhythms of nature.
I am the daughter of World War II refugees who fled Ukraine when both the Nazis and Communists invaded their country. Settling in New York in 1949, my parents brought with them their language, culture and traditions. As the Communist regime solidified its grip on the population, it began the process of creating a new “Soviet everyman”.Thus the cultural environment became very inhospitable to traditional Ukrainian folk arts and they slowly disappeared. It was in the Ukrainian diaspora in New York that women like my grandmother, my mother, and I safeguarded this ritual so that it could be reborn in an independent Ukraine in the 20th century.
The tradition of pysanka (plural- pysanky) creating had its origins in pagan times in present-day Ukraine. The whole egg represented the rebirth of nature, while the yolk alone was a symbol of the all-powerful sun. Pysanky, which are created using the wax resistance batik technique, were revered as talismans. People believed that through symbolic patterns on the eggshell, which were passed down from mother to daughter, they could send messages of tribute and entreaties to the pagan gods. When Ukraine accepted Christianity in the 10th century AD, many aspects of paganism were incorporated into the new religion, including the art of the pysanka.
During my Fulbright year in Ukraine (2014-15), I became deeper acquainted with many Ukrainian born artists of the first half of the 20th century. This took me on a path of experimentation (using the traditional batik technique) and creation of egg designs in the artistic style of these masters. These projects would never have come to fruition had it not been for my Fulbright grant.
The tradition of creating these small jewels of Ukrainian folk art now lives on in the world and I am a participant in this centuries-old process. According to a Ukrainian legend, as long as people create pysanky, the world shall exist. I create art to ensure that this legend endures.
Artist and ethnographer Sofika Zielyk, a native New Yorker, holds a degree in Art History from New York University. She has lectured and exhibited her work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Museum of Natural History, Museum of Arts and Design, office of the Security Council at the United Nations in New York, the Embassy of Ukraine in Washington, D.C., America House, a component of the US Embassy in Kyiv, the Cathedrale of Saint Volodymyr le Grand in Paris, France and in Rome, Italy at the Church of Santa Sophia. In 1992 Sofika was the first American of Ukrainian descent to exhibit her work in her ancestral homeland. In early 1993, a bilingual book on “The Art of the Pysanka” by Sofika was published in Ukraine.