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.
Sometimes design ideas just pour out of my head and onto the eggs and I can’t find enough studio time to complete them all.
Then there are other times when I sit staring at a clean white egg and experience what I call “Blank-egg-o-phobia.”
You know the feeling. You want to create and yet you sit and stare at that unstarted project and the longer you sit and stare, the harder it is to get started and pretty soon you realize that your studio is a mess and you should really organize it better but first you need to move everything off your table and you discover it is incredibly dusty which requires a trip to the kitchen to get the cleaning supplies where you remember that you forgot to unload the dishwasher and two hours later you finally come back to your studio and decide you’ll try again tomorrow.
Please tell me I’m not alone here.
So how do I get past this? Artists everywhere have discovered that working “in a series” can help unleash creativity again. A “series” just means creating a body of work with a common theme. It doesn’t even matter whether you decide to link all your work by color, texture, subject, or style, a series will provide definition and boundaries.
It’s very counterintuitive, but limiting my choices requires me to think more deeply about the subject. It’s an opportunity to explore those ideas fully and to learn from each step. The same rules that limit me will keep me on track but free me to get creative in discovering new solutions to design problems. Fear of ruining a piece can keep me stuck but working in multiples can get me unstuck.
As I started thinking about this topic, I noticed that God also works in series. Think about trees, for instance. God designed all trees with the same basic parts… roots, trunks, branches, leaves. That could get boring pretty quickly but God, the infinitely creative artist, started playing with all those parts using color and shape and size. I’d venture to say there is an infinite variation in the tree world but all within the boundaries of those same boring parts…roots, trunks, branches, leaves. Take a look around you. It’s not just in trees, it’s in everything…clouds, rivers, rocks, and people too. Absolutely everything shows God’s creative handiwork within a set of rules.
The lesson here? Rules are your friend both in art and in life.
Returning to my studio here…Let me give you a peek at my latest series. Quite a contrast to my usual multi-colored eggs with lots of fine lines, these Trypillian-style eggs require only three colors…white, brown and black. The designs are very bold, simple and repetitive but as a group I find them fascinating. Hope you enjoy them too.
Five days of “playing eggs” with friends old and new, now that is my idea of what heaven is like. I just got back from the Pysanky USA Retreat 2015 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and am still on a pysanky high. Together with 70 other pysanky artists we spent our days giving and teaching classes, hanging out in the play room working on eggs, and catching up on each other’s lives. True community at its best.
This is a far-flung group to say the least. One person came from Japan and not only that, she comes from the same city where I was born. Such a small world, isn’t it? Another spent this last year on the medical ship Mercy Africa in Madagascar. Many folks came from the Northeastern states but we had attendees from the South, the Midwest, the West Coast and also Canada.
Here are just a few photos to give you a taste of my personal heaven.
Back in 2010 I had a solo art show of my eggs in the Art & Soul Gallery of our church. It was a huge leap of faith for me because it was the first time I really connected my art with my walk with God.
It ran throughout Lent, which is traditionally forty days of preparation for the Easter celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. Fasting and prayer often accompany this time of waiting. It is a season for reflection and taking stock. A time of soul-searching and repentance.
As I gave this thought and prayer, I recalled my childhood experiences with Lent. We usually chose to give something up as a reminder to pray and to look forward to the Easter celebration to come. It took a while but gradually words bubbled to the surface to express my Lenten experience. Fasting, prayer, listening, repentance. But the story didn’t stop there. At Easter fasting becomes abundance, prayer becomes hope, listening becomes growth and repentance becomes forgiveness. God’s story of love and transformation became more real now that I had words to express it.
Now I wanted to experience and express visually what that time of preparation meant to me. So the big question…how in the world do I take this colorful, traditional art done on eggs and give the viewer a sense of my own journey of faith? Eventually this thought crossed my mind. What if I gave up the use of color on these eggs? What if I only worked in black and white? My next thought was, “Are you crazy?”
I knew my designs would have to be strong enough to stand alone, without the distraction of color. How in the world do I create interest using only lines? I’d never tried this before and I was pretty sure I’d be able to do a few but could I create enough to fill the whole show? And what if I couldn’t come up with enough material in time? What if I failed? Fear, self-doubt, and a sense of the enormity of this task sidetracked me for a while.
As the days ticked by I kept hearing a soft voice say, “Just make one egg.” So I did.
“That wasn’t so hard,” I thought. And so I made another…and another…and pretty soon the design ideas flowed until chicken, duck, goose, and finally an ostrich egg all in black and white covered every surface of my workroom.
The show looked great in the gallery but I have no idea if anyone understood what I was trying to say with these eggs. And it doesn’t matter because the important part of the show for me was what I learned along the way. Sometimes God doesn’t give you the big picture. Sometimes you just have to start the journey and not focus on the goal. And sometimes you will find a joy in that journey that surprises you.
Many of you know that I play the cello. I began as an adult and have been taking lessons for nearly seven years now and although I can see progress, I still can’t bring myself to claim the title of cellist yet.
The learning curve for this instrument is steep. For each note the fingers of my left hand have to press an exact spot on the string to produce the correct pitch. Depending on the sound I want and what the next notes will be, I have to choose which finger to use and whether to press just my fingertip or a flattened finger onto the string. Do I hold it steady or rock my hand to create vibrato? Meanwhile to form the purest tone my right hand controls the pressure, angle and placement of the bow as well as its speed across the string. So many choices with each and every note.
Truth be told, practicing is not always a pleasant experience…for me or the other inhabitants of my house. If I know my practice session will include work on some horribly hard stuff, I try to schedule my cello time when no one else is home. If that can’t happen I warn my family with our code phrase, “It’s going to be two-door bad.” That’s means I not only close the door to the room where I am practicing, but I also close their door in order muffle the sound as much as possible.
Over the years I do see improvement in my playing but it’s a painfully long and slow process. Sometimes that’s discouraging. Cringing as I hit yet another awful note can be debilitating. If I stop my bow, the note is gone but its memory lingers to mock my attempts. I often think, “Should I just give up now and spare the world this agony?” Thankfully God whispers life lessons to me in odd moments like this. It struck me recently that each time I pick up the cello I have a choice. I can’t do anything about the bad notes I played before but I can make each note I am currently playing as beautiful as possible. Those past regrets take away from today’s beauty and I need to let them go. Learn from them but move on. A valuable life lesson indeed.
Doing what you love is a good thing…but doing it with a bunch of other people who also love it is an amazingly good thing. I spent last week in Pennsylvania with 60+ other pysanky artists at an egg retreat learning, teaching, connecting and laughing with friends old and new. To put it simply, I went to summer camp for adults…and I highly recommend it.
This is my third year attending the Pysanky USA Retreat. I took a few classes, taught a few classes and mostly hung out in the “play room” where we could work on our own projects as we talked and shared about egg art and life in general. The room population ebbed and flowed throughout the day as classes started which allowed me to meet new people with the luxury of unhurried time on our side. Free flowing ideas sparked new techniques, new color combinations, new dyes to try. Wow, my brain got full fast!
I came away from this week not only with a renewed enthusiasm for this art but with a sense of community and connectedness to my fellow pysanky artists across the country. And I’m already looking forward to next year!
Here’s a glimpse of our week at Oak Hills Church Arts Camp!
God blessed me with 12 wonderfully creative 5th and 6th grade girls, two loving shepherd helpers and a calm and cheerful assistant teacher this year. Together we learned about God and His love for us while we learned the art of pysanky and how to create these jeweled wonders. We also learned that occasionally eggs break but life goes on because you get to start over on a new egg.
All valuable life lessons in my book.