A Solo Gallery Show by Teresa Mihalko Harbert
April 2 through May 7, 2017
at the Art & Soul Gallery of Oak Hills Church
1100 Blue Ravine Road, Folsom CA 95630
Probably the number one question I am asked about this art called pysanky is, “Are they real eggs?” The answer? Yes, they are very real eggs. God created an engineering marvel with those shells, sturdy enough to withstand the mama bird’s weight as she keeps them warm before they hatch and yet designed so the baby bird can still peck its way through to life on the outside.
Over the years I have accidentally broken eggs at every stage in this creative wax-and-dye process. From exploding an egg while emptying it, to smashing one as I reach for it on my work area, to bobbling another as I remove layers of wax, and even dropping one or two as I proudly tried to admire my finished work of art.
Frustration does not adequately describe my feelings each time this happens. And after mourning the loss and cursing my clumsiness I eventually reach for another egg and begin all over again.
This solo exhibition show has been a long time in coming. It is the joy of creation and the pain of loss all tangled up in thoughts and eggshells. Let me take you on my art and faith journey from the initial idea to the actual show you will see in the Art & Soul gallery.
It all starts with my love for tiny details. I actually crave the quiet hours alone required to create these eggs. That’s my time to push away the busyness of the “regular” world and focus on one small thing at a time. And once in a while as I work God gives me an idea to ponder. This time it started with the eggshells themselves.
The show title, Fragile Canvas, came quickly and I knew that somehow I needed to demonstrate it, not just tell about it. I decided to create an egg and then break it on purpose for a photo for the show’s title page. Creating the egg was a joy, but I was surprised at how reluctant I felt when the time came to break it. It was much more emotional than I expected.
I finally got out my camera and readied the photo shoot area. Then I took a few minutes to marvel at the designs and color choices on my finished egg’s surface. This goose egg had been such a pleasure to work on because it was unusually smooth. Most goose eggs have small bumps and pits on their surface so the wax lines appear to waver as they move across the egg. Dyes don’t always adhere as brightly either but this particular egg behaved perfectly every step of the way. Looking at the finished egg I started to doubt myself, did I really need to break it?
I wrestled with my decision quite a while before bringing the egg down sharply onto my desk. Hearing that distinctive “crack” actually sent a shiver up my spine and I felt an immense sense of loss. I had changed that egg forever with one swift movement of my hand.
As I inspected the damage and gently picked up the pieces, I marveled at the beauty of the egg, even in its broken state. This is where God again gently spoke, reminding me that our lives are also fleeting and must be handled with great care. We are all made of fragile canvas and yet even in our broken state, we still have beauty.
Fragile canvases indeed.
Maybe it’s my “almost-an-empty-nester” stage but more and more I find myself taking stock of where I am in life, where I thought I would be at this age, and wondering what I will become in the future. And of course those dreaded comparisons and regrets start creeping in. The what-ifs and why-didn’t-I’s can all too easily overwhelm me and take away the joy of the present.
A while back I came across a line about allowing God to transform the broken places in your life into prisms. Can’t you just see that? What a beautiful word picture of redemption and hope. That idea has been rolling around in the back of my head for a while and so I began to review my life again. What if I start looking at my faults as prisms reflecting God’s beauty outside of my selfish little world? How this happens I don’t know but I’m holding onto God’s goodness and grace and letting Him be in charge, or at least I’m trying to.
I love when God whispers His truth to me through my art. I love it even more when I pay attention and actually listen. Over the years I have collected quite a pile of broken eggs. Some were completed and accidentally cracked. Some didn’t turn out as I’d hoped and were abandoned partway through the process. I couldn’t bring myself to toss any of them so they just sat in a drawer collecting dust. Every time I opened the drawer they shouted at me that I had failed in some way.
Now what if I used those broken bits somehow? Could I really transform them into something more? After a lot of experimentation I can finally say yes.
These egg mosaics have been a challenge and a delight to create. I’m still discovering new ways to improve my designs and having fun in the process. Not only that, I will be teaching a class on this technique at the Pysanky USA retreat in Pennsylvania next week.
This time of year often brings thoughts about new beginnings but a profound insight hit me recently. As I reached for a fresh egg to begin yet another project I realized that each egg gives me another chance to have fun, to change my approach, to improve my skill, to make a completely different egg than the last one. In other words, every egg is a “do over.” And I am so thankful that I don’t have to be stuck with the past, but can grow and change and develop as an artist as I work on the next egg.
Here’s the amazing thing though. This principle applies not just to egg art, but to life as well. All of life is one big “potential” when you think about it. Each day is a “do over” that waits for me to move forward one small step at a time. I really like that perspective. So look out 2012, here I come.
Creating these eggs is a never-ending adventure in experimentation and I’ve made my share of poor color and design choices over the years. It took me quite a while to realize it is okay to dislike a piece enough to destroy it and try again. Now I give myself permission to cut my losses and move on sometimes. It hasn’t always been this way, though.
Let me tell you the story of what we refer to in my family as “The Ugly Cake.” Years ago when my oldest son, Ryan, turned 14 I decided to try making an ice cream roll birthday cake like the ones at Baskin-Robbins. The yellow cake part baked without incident and I dutifully rolled it up in a towel when it came out of the oven just like the cookbook said. As I finished rolling it, I noticed a wrinkle in the towel so without thinking, I stretched the two side edges to get rid of the wrinkle. Unfortunately the hot cake was firmly attached to the towel at this point and it split crosswise into two rolls. Oh well, I thought to myself. I can glue it together with the ice cream filling. No one will ever know.
Once cooled, I gently unrolled the cake to find that not only had it split into two rolls, it unrolled with a series of cracks so deep that I could see the towel below. Still believing I had a chance, I dutifully spread softened chocolate ice cream over the pieces of cake and rolled it back up as I went. I could tell it looked pretty pitiful at this point, but hoping for the best, I stuck it in the freezer.
When I checked later, I realized the ice cream must have been too soft because the weight of the cake caused it to ooze out of all the edges of the cake. Alarmed, I yanked it out of the freezer with perhaps a little too much vigor. Because the ice cream wasn’t hard all the way through the cake, the top half slid right over the edge of the pan and onto my arm.
Ever the optimist, I scooted the pieces back together and decided I could still save it if I just made a chocolate glaze and covered up what I now referred to as the “Ugly Cake.” I quickly threw together a decadent shiny chocolate glaze to try to hide the many mounting flaws. However, I forgot the cake was cold and instead of flowing gracefully over its sides, the warm glaze just sat in a lump on the top of the mess.
Desperate now, I spread the glaze as far as it would go, shoved the cake back in the freezer, and drove with Ryan to Baskin-Robbins where we chose a cake from the many beauties in their freezer. I did finally show the “Ugly Cake” to the rest of the family and we had a good laugh at my adventure.
The lesson here? There are definitely times to admit your mistakes, give up, and move on. You might even laugh about them someday.
Lest you think more highly of me as an artist than you should, I have to set the record straight. The photographs you see in my galleries are the cream of the crop of my pysanky. What you don’t see are my less than successful endeavors.
Sometimes it’s not my fault. Sometimes the eggshell is damaged in a way that doesn’t show up until near the end of the process. That’s why I don’t use grocery store eggs anymore. Mechanical rollers leave invisible scratches on mass produced eggshells. It’s very disheartening to put hours of work into an egg only to discover on the final dye that imperfections mar the design.
Lots of times, though, it is definitely my fault. I have mistakenly covered areas in wax when I shouldn’t have. I’ve forgotten to cover areas with wax when I should have, which means they end up a different color than I had originally planned. I have also dyed the whole egg the wrong color and there is no “undo” button for that.
Even finishing an egg isn’t any guarantee of success. More than once I have bobbled an egg just as I was taking off the final bits of wax. Sometimes they bounce on the table and stay whole, but twice I accidentally crushed the egg between my stomach and the table edge while trying to keep it from falling. And you can’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.
The most irritating of all are mistakes I make from inattention or impatience. Last year I was in a hurry because of a close deadline so I put the egg in an oven with the light on, thinking the warm air would help it dry faster. I foolishly thought the light would also warn my boys to remove the egg before preheating the oven. They didn’t and there is no “undo” button for a burnt, browned egg either. Trust me.
The photos here show a simple project that turned endless. On the first egg you can see some unattractive dye imperfections from hen scratches. So I tried again. The second egg burned when the tissue I was using to wipe the wax from the egg caught on fire. Egg number three turned out better than the previous two attempts but I was nervous the whole way through the process.
Whatever the reason for these mistakes, there is something to be said for the character quality of persistence. And that’s what God is teaching me through this art these days.
While working on my website yesterday I saw an announcement asking if I’d like to “get posts sent directly to you via instant messenger” and that started me thinking. Just how fast do I need to get posts? I mean, do I really need to know instantly when a new post is out there for me to read?
No one would deny that we live in a fast-paced world. Everything today is fast… email and instant messaging make the postman unnecessary… microwaves cook our food in minutes…online shopping can have your purchase on your doorstep overnight…digital photos go instantly from camera to computer to printer…and the list goes on. We just don’t know how to slow down anymore. Nor do we want to.
It feels like life speeds up with each passing year and there’s no way to stop it. And yet I find I crave the slowness found in the art of pysanky. Everything about it is slow, from melting the beeswax in the kistka to waiting as the egg sits in the dye to working layer by layer, color by color toward the finished egg. My soul grows bigger as I watch a design emerge, wrapping another egg in elaborate colors.
This is where slow is beautiful. And that’s a good thing.
Truth be told, I love stealing away to my workspace alone, leaving the rest of the world behind as I immerse myself in the work and play of wax and dyes and eggs. There is something healing and soul restoring about the quiet, repetitive actions these eggs require. I can’t seem to get enough time alone like this so when I do, I enjoy it thoroughly.
Interacting with other artists is just as valuable to my soul, yet I don’t make nearly enough time for it in my life. Why is it so hard for me? I understand the value of community, I enjoy learning about the art and soul journeys of others, and I get inspired when I hear other artists speak with passion about their art.
I realize I love my comfortable “alone” zone so to push against these introverted leanings, I meet monthly with other artists. In the Sacramento area, the Covenant Artists meet on the third Thursday of each month and artists of all media and skill levels are welcome. This group exists to share, discover, and learn about ourselves, our art and our God.
If you would like to stretch your artistic side, I highly recommend connecting with other artists. Isn’t it time for you to step out of your comfort zone too?
It’s a mystery to me that I can pick colors and create intricate designs on a tiny egg without a problem but when it comes to decorating my house, I am clueless. I have friends whose homes are beautifully color coordinated with wall hangings, knickknacks and furniture. They truly have the home decorating gene and it’s awesome to experience. I, on the other hand, have realized that if the area to be decorated is larger than about six inches, I have no idea where to start or what to do.
I’ve always loved miniature things. As a child, I delighted in making tiny items for my beloved troll dolls. A toothpaste cap became a bucket while pieces of string turned a toothpick into a mop. My shoebox dollhouse had “real art” on its walls made from wooden matchstick frames and small magazine clippings. When I learned to knit I created many mouse-sized stocking caps just for the fun of it.
Even now as I analyze what gives me pleasure I can see that I lean toward the little every time. Baby birds…well just about baby anything for that matter…miniature flowers versus their larger cousins… hummingbirds with their teeny tiny feet…1000 piece puzzles… cross-stitch patterns designed for 22 stitches-per-inch fabric…very petite Christmas ornaments…you get the idea.
So I take my hat off to those of you who enjoy working in larger slices of life. You have a talent I greatly admire but I think I’ll stay in my miniature world. And you’re welcome to come visit me anytime.