Oriskany woman, 93, helps keep holiday tradition, culture alive

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ORISKANY — For some, Easter eggs are brightly colored hard boiled eggs that are hidden and then eaten once found on Easter Sunday.

But for Mary Kuchera, a Ukrainian-American woman, they are an art form.

The 93-year-old Oriskany resident has been decorating Ukrainian pysanky since she was a small child. The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, Kuchera is keeping Ukrainian culture alive by making the traditional pysanky.  

She told stories of the symbols and what her eggs represent during a talk at Oriskany Museum on March 23.

Affectionately known as the “Egg Lady,” Kuchera has close to 1,000 intricately decorated pysanky in her home. She said she loves to demonstrate how to make them and speak of the rich traditions regarding the symbolism of each line and design. The elaborately designed eggs form a part of the centuries-old celebration of the Christian Easter in the Ukraine.

“This is not just a beautiful egg. Every design has a meaning, and it’s thought that certain designs have a power,” she said.

Kuchera went on to explain that circles symbolize eternity; wolves’ teeth protection; garland is birth or married life; the sun is warmth, growth and the love of God; stars are beauty, elegance and Christ’s birth; and the trinity is the Holy Father, mother, father and child or heaven, Earth and hell. Even simple dots have their own special meaning, which are suppose to symbolize tears from heaven or fixed points that have no beginning or end.

“They mean from sorrow comes unexpected blessings,” she said.

Even colors represent certain meanings, Kuchera said. White is purity and birth; yellow, wisdom and light; green is spring or rebirth; orange is power, endurance and ambition; red is the sun, happiness, life, hope, passion and bravery; blue is the sky, air, magic, good health and trust; brown is the Earth, harvest and generosity; purple is royalty, trust and patience; and black is the darkest time before dawn, constancy and eternity.

Through the wax and dye process, eggs are transformed from their natural state into decorative works of art. A simple design may take two hours to complete, but an intricate design can take several hours. Kuchera works with chicken, duck, goose and even ostrich eggs.

The 93-year-old shared her stories of growing up with the art. She learned to make pysanky from her mother, but was only 8 when she saw a picture of one with intricate designs and wanted to try and make one of her own.

It was during the Great Depression, and Mary said she would run off the school bus each afternoon in anticipation she would go work on her prized egg. When it was finally complete, she proudly placed it into a basket with her mother’s pysanky, but one day after school, those eggs would turn to a bunch of bananas. It turned out her father had sold or traded them for food.

Her first masterpiece sold for bananas — literally.

“I was so very, very proud of it,” Kuchera said. “I never told anyone how bad I felt that it was gone. I just said at least I know I can do it now.”

And at 93, she continues to make them.

Kuchera said her mother would start making pysanky on the first day of Lent and would draw and dye them until Easter. While she still uses beeswax, a candle and traditional metal and wood instruments to draw her designs, Kuchera explained that today she purchases dyes. Her mother, however, would soak crepe paper in water and then squeeze out the dye before adding vinegar to set the color. Each egg is finished with two coats of varnish to give them their shine.

Of all her creations — almost 1,000 of them — Kuchera said she really doesn’t have a single favorite, but her large ostrich egg is a personal treasure of pride. Her daughter-in-law shared that Kuchera once taught her that making each pysanky “is like a prayer and mediation to make the world a better place.”

Kuchera’s exhibit at Oriskany Museum will be on display at the Oriskany Museum until Easter, which is Sunday, April 21. Regular hours for the Oriskany Museum are 1-5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

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