It all starts with the egg.
In spring, chickens start laying again, bringing a welcome source of protein at winter's end. So it's no surprise that cultures around the world celebrate spring by honoring the egg.
Some traditions are simple, like the red eggs that get baked into Greek Easter breads. Others elevate the egg into an elaborate art, like the heavily jewel-encrusted Faberge eggs that were favored by the Russian czars starting in the 19th century.
One ancient form of egg art comes to us from Ukraine. For centuries, Ukrainians have been drawing intricate patterns on pysanky eggs using a traditional method that involves a stylus and wax. Contemporary artists have adapted these methods to create eggs that speak to the anxieties of our age: Life is precious, and fragile. Eggs are, too.
"There's something about their fragile nature that in an insane way appeals to me," says New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. A few years ago she became obsessed with eggs and learned the traditional wax-resist technique used for Ukrainian pysanky eggs to draw her very modern characters. "I've broken eggs at every stage of the process — from the very beginning to the very, very end."
But there's an appeal in that vulnerability. "There's part of this sickening horror of knowing you're walking on the edge with this, that I kind of like. Knowing that it could all fall apart at any second."
Chast's designs reflect that fragility, from a worried man alone in a wee rowboat, to a Humpty Dumpty who seems all too aware of his imminent fate.
Traditional Ukrainian pysanky also spoke to those fears. The elaborate patterns were believed to offer protection against evil.
"There's an ancient legend that as long as pysanky are made, evil will not prevail in the world," says Joan Brander, a pysanky artist in Richmond, B.C. She's been making pysanky for more than 60 years, having learned the art of the egg from her Ukrainian relatives.
The pysansky tradition, says Brander, dates back to Ukrainian spring rituals in pre-Christian times. The tradition was incorporated into the Christian church, but the old symbols endure. "A pysanka with a bird on it, [when] given to a young married couple, is a wish for children," she explains. "A pysanka thrown into the field would be a wish for a good harvest."
She says that pysanky artists used to work in secret, unveiling their designs on Easter. But with the Internet, pysanky has become a democratized art. Artists share designs and techniques online, so they no longer have to rely on family traditions.
Paul Wirhun, an artist in Provincetown, Mass., has adapted pysanky techniques he learned as a child in a Ukrainian-American family for decidedly modern ends, including a series of eggs commemorating those who died in the Iraq war.
The egg, Wirhun says, is not just a symbolic object — "it's a power object." When people raised chickens themselves, he notes, the eggs would have been fertilized by a rooster. "It wasn't just a representation of new life, it was new life." When artists decorate eggs, Wirhun says, they evoke that power in their art.