Salem artist decorates eggs in Ukrainian tradition to support refugees

Decades after Jenny Orr’s Ukrainian friends taught her the tradition of pysanky, the Salem artist picked up eggs and beeswax – and strapped on a headband with magnifying lenses – to help neighbors in need.

Pysanky is a traditional method of egg dyeing where the artist draws on the shell with wax, dips the egg in dye, and repeats until the shell displays a vibrant and complex pattern.

Orr went to an all-girls high school in Philadelphia, which has a significant Ukrainian population. Around Easter time, her friends would bring eggs, wax and dye to the homeroom class period.

“They would show me,” Orr said. “Because there was a community there, I was able to buy supplies as well, because this was well before internet times when you could just hop online and buy some stuff.”

Orr loved it, and continued making pysanky eggs through high school. But then life, and a career in math and science, left little room for the time-intensive art form. 

Now retired, Orr picked up an egg last March. It had been over 15 years since she’d made a pysanky. 

Within 10 months, she had sold nearly four dozen and raised over $1,600 for Ukrainian refugees in Salem as of Thursday, according to the Salem Art Association.

Orr’s pysanky eggs went on sale for $40 each at the Salem Art Association on Jan. 22, with all proceeds going to Salem for Refugees, a nonprofit resettlement agency.

The organization is grateful for Orr’s effort, said Ethan Howard, office manager at Salem for Refugees, in an email to Salem Reporter. The funding Orr raised will be used to buy gift cards for Ukrainian refugees who are referred to the organization. 

“These gift cards are so appreciated as they supplement groceries, as well as essential clothing and hygiene items,” Howard said.

Orr taught computer science at Willamette University from 1995 until her retirement five years ago. Some of her courses combined art and math, like 3-D animation and computer generated art.

She said she loves the combination of geometry and art involved in making pysanky.

“They’re very beautiful,” she said. “I like detail and spending the time to really put in the finer details, so it’s nice.”

The details are so fine that Orr, who’s in her 60s, now uses a headband with magnifying lenses, similar to what jewelers wear.

“You feel like a little bit of a dork, but it did the job,” she said, laughing.

Orr’s first step is blowing out the innards of the egg, which she cooks and eats, before she begins waxing and dyeing.

In some Ukrainian traditions, the eggs are left intact so they eventually dry, and the yoke becomes a rattle. Orr opts to blow out the egg contents to ensure that they don’t spoil.

“If it does have a hairline crack in it, it allows bacteria to get in, and it cracks and smells to high heaven. Or it explodes – I’ve had that happen when I walk into my house and I sniff and I go, ‘oh God another egg went,’” she said.

Decorating an egg can take Orr a few days, and she said it’s meditative. At the end, she holds the completed piece over the candle to melt the wax off and reveal the design.

She said she enjoys the process, and last year realized it was a way she could help people impacted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

“The Ukrainian war really caught me, because one: it caught everyone, right? By the brutality and the horror of it – and the illegality of it – but because I did the Ukrainian eggs I had this association with Ukraine,” she said. “I’ve always had a fondness for the culture.”

She was inspired by other artists around the country fundraising with pysanky, including the Pysanky for Peace project based in California.

Orr had one particular person in mind when began decorating the eggs – a former student who was in her class at Willamette in 2014, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in southern Ukraine.

“He was such a sweet, smart, creative student,” she said. “He was here, and he wanted to be home to join all his family and friends who were trying to do things, including going off (to) fight.”

The student ended up finishing his Willamette courses before going back home. Orr didn’t keep in touch, and said she wonders if he is alive today. He would have volunteered immediately, she thinks.

“The people who have been killed there, it just breaks my heart,” she said. “I still had him in my mind and it brought it really to the reality that this is really hurting people.”

Orr said she’s pleased with the amount of eggs, around 40, that have been sold this week. 

“I’m just gonna keep making the eggs, and maybe send them off somewhere where the few that I continue to make can be sold and raise some more money, which would be good,” she said.

There are about a dozen left as of Thursday afternoon, available for viewing or purchase at the Salem Art Association Bush Barn Art Center & Annex, 600 Mis­sion St. S.E.

An egg with a four circles pattern design (courtesy/ Salem Art Association)

NOTE: The sentence “Within 10 months, she had sold nearly four dozen and raised over $1,600 for Ukrainian refugees in Salem as of Thursday, according to the Salem Art Association” has been updated for clarity. She did not make every egg in that time period, and sold some she had made in prior years.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.