The Colors of Easter

Ukrainian faithful carry on an ancient art

by Marvin Anderson

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“Things have certainly changed, but this store remains the same,” says Markian Surmach, the owner of Surma — a family-run shop in the heart of New York City’s historic Ukrainian neighborhood on the Lower East Side. “Just look at it,” he says, pointing to Taras Schevchenko Place across the street, where the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art recently built a state-of-the-art facility. The steel-and-glass building occupies the full length of the city block, casting a long shadow over Surma’s modest storefront in a prewar walk-up building.

For nearly a century, Surma has served the city’s Ukrainian community, selling products from the homeland, such as traditional embroidered clothes and accessories, artwork, antiques and Ukrainian-language book and newspapers.

“They find their culture, and they find themselves here,” says Mr. Surmach. “People come to the store in search of a simpler and less complicated way of life.”

Before getting lost in Surma’s labyrinth of authentic Ukrainian treasures, patrons pass by a small glass showcase near the entrance. Inside, dozens of pysanky, or traditionally decorated chicken and goose eggs, shimmer on display. Radiant red, yellow and orange eggs intersperse with others dyed cooler hues of blue, green and violet. Intricate Christian and ancient pagan symbols adorn the surfaces.

As with most Slavs of Eastern Europe — Croats, Czechs, Poles, Rusyns and Slovaks — Ukrainians have cultivated the art of egg decoration to commemorate Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.

However, pysanky are also an intricate string in the collective fabric of Ukrainians and people of Ukrainian descent around the world. The designs serve as a living record and reminder of a shared, idyllic agrarian past.

“They’re not just eggs,” explains Mr. Surmach. “They have meaning. They represent a culture that respected the world around them.”

In the Soviet era, authorities suppressed pysanky (from the Ukrainian verb pysaty, “to write”) along with other religious practices and most national cultural expressions. Nevertheless, Ukrainians continued making pysanky in secret, and they quickly emerged as emblems of national resistance.

Mr. Surmach himself readily shares the memory of the first time he decorated an egg. “I would have rather been out with my friends and not painting eggs,” he says with a laugh. Mr. Surmach still occasionally makes pysanky with family and friends. However, he imports from Ukraine those he sells in his shop.

“I have respect for it now,” he says, as he carefully removes a small blue-and-white one from the showcase and holds it up to the light to reveal the design’s delicate detail.

Artists and historians debate precisely when Slavs first began creating pysanky. Most, though, agree that the art form appeared in the region at least 2,000 years ago.

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Tags: Ukraine Christianity Cultural Identity Art Easter