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April 20, 2014

Art, prayer and a giving spirit intertwine in unique Easter eggs

Each year, Kathleen Rollick of Lafayette creates and gives away between 12 and 24 pysanky, Easter eggs decorated in the ancient Ukrainian tradition. (Photo by Kevin Cullen)

Each year, Kathleen Rollick of Lafayette creates and gives away between 12 and 24 pysanky, Easter eggs decorated in the ancient Ukrainian tradition. (Photo by Kevin Cullen)

By Kevin Cullen

LAFAYETTE — Kathleen Rollick is a chemical engineer in a local pharmaceuticals plant, but she minored in art and it shows. She bubbles with creativity and a serene spirituality.

When she’s not working, she happily pursues calligraphy, decorative penmanship and the creation of medieval signature letters.

“Probably two-thirds of my art is religious art. It has a beautiful language all its own. It’s nice to have your art really mean something,” she says.

But as Lent leads to Easter, the 31-year-old member of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception immerses herself in “pysanky,” that is, Easter eggs decorated in the ancient Ukrainian tradition. Each design is original, unique and rich in symbolism ... gem-like, multicolored and impossibly complicated.

She decorates between 12 and 24 eggs each year, working at her dining room table. Usually, each design is created specifically for the person who will receive it. Rollick prays the rosary, and prays for the recipient, as she lays out designs in hot wax, then applies the dyes.

Prayer, she said, “enhances the artwork. It makes the art more of a prayer.”

She never sells her creations, because, she says, “I have too much fun giving them away.”

Each gift “focuses on how good people are, and it lets them know how much they are loved.”

“She is a special person, with a heart of gold,” says one grateful recipient, Angie Eason, of rural Tippecanoe County. She and Rollick work together.

Eason’s egg — a surprise gift in 2012 — features a Christian cross; bands that symbolize eternity; a circle representing God’s perfection; butterflies, denoting resurrection; sieves, which depict the separation of good and evil; and horses, which stand for strength, endurance, wealth and prosperity. Eason trains and shows quarter-horses.

“What is really special about her is the fact that she kind of observes people and listens very carefully to what they say, even if it is something she has no interest in whatsoever,” Eason says. “It was like she took my life and etched it onto this egg. She almost portrays who she feels you are in her heart.

“She does things quietly and secretly. Nothing of hers is ‘ta-da!’” Eason says. “It’s always very subtle. I think that everyone who gets one really appreciates it. If not, they should. She is totally a giver.”

Another co-worker, Marty Barbarich, was touched when he received an egg a year ago. His wife had recently died, so Rollick’s design incorporated a rosary and symbols representing eternal life, resurrection and God’s perfection.

“It was very thoughtful of her, and it surprised me; I didn’t expect her to do something like that for me. It is very beautiful, very intricate. She is always looking out for others and not herself,” said Barbarich, a parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Remington.

His grandparents emigrated from Slovenia, so he appreciates the tie to Eastern Europe.

Rollick, who also has sculpted, painted and worked in textiles, was introduced to pysanky as a student at Archbishop Hoban High School in Akron, Ohio.

“Our teacher got a kit and everyone tried it,” she recalls. “I thought ‘Wow! This is cool.’ I made it my 4-H project. I just thought they were so beautiful — like jewels.”

Through the years, she has learned through reading, experimentation, and talking to other artists. She often spends six hours on one egg. She insists on creating her own, original designs.

“I try to tell a story,” Rollick says. “I see it as a way of praying and loving other people. That makes it more meaningful.”

Eggs always have been seen as symbols of rebirth and new life, and decorated eggs have long been given as gifts.

When the Ukraine accepted Christianity in the 10th century, pagan symbols were adapted to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. An eight-pointed star came to represent Jesus’ love for mankind; butterflies represent the resurrection, a carefree childhood and the journey of the soul into paradise. Cross-hatched netting symbolizes the separation of good and evil; baskets suggest motherhood and knowledge. Flowers represent love and caring; branches stand for immortality, pure love, strength and persistence. A grape vine suggests the good fruit of a Christian life. A circle represents God’s perfection and unity. Dots stand for the tears of Mary. Bees symbolize hard work and industry.

Over the past 1,000 years, legends have emerged. According to one, when Simon was pressed into service to carry the cross of Christ, he left a basket of eggs by the road. When he returned, they had changed into pysanky. In another, Mary brought a basket of eggs to Pontius Pilate to beg him to have mercy and spare Jesus’ life. Her tears fell on the eggs, and they turned into pysanky.

A chicken egg poses obvious challenges: the surface is curved, small and fragile.

Before starting, Rollick bores a hole in each egg, pierces the yolk and pumps out the contents.

Each pysanky requires imagination, planning, creativity, artistic ability and patience.

First, the design is sketched on the shell with a mechanical pencil. Then it is drawn with melted beeswax using a stylus called a kistka. Then the egg is dipped in colored dye. Areas covered by wax remain the base color of the egg.

With each layer of decoration, the egg is dipped into a darker dye. Finally, all the wax is removed by holding it over a candle or heating it with a hair dryer, then wiping it clean. Miraculously, the design bursts forth, like a glorious sunrise emerging from behind a cloud. Protective varnish is then applied.

Rollick says her art was transformed by what she calls her “miracle egg” experience.

It was 2009. She had decorated several eggs, and on Holy Saturday she stopped at a local drugstore to print photos of them. She was dissatisfied with one egg, which she had made for a co-worker.

A stranger admired the photos, then tearfully explained that she was printing photos from the funeral of her brother, who had drowned while rescuing his daughter.

“I told her that I had an egg without a home, and that I would really like to give it to her,” Rollick recalls. “Before packaging up the egg, I wrote out the meanings of the symbols. It was incredible — the symbols on the egg fit so perfectly, as if it had always been intended for him.

“I felt so incredibly blessed,” Rollick says. “It served as a turning point in how I looked at the craft. Afterwards, I started to look for opportunities to use the eggs to heal people’s spirits in addition to giving them as gifts of love and appreciation.

“I felt that God was speaking to me,” she says. “It was like a miracle to me.”

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