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.
Her name is Fiona. At least that’s what I call this duck nesting in my yard. She actually belongs to my neighbor but kept finding her way back into my yard. Every day my neighbor would take her back home but Fiona got what she wanted. One day I found her sitting firmly on a nest and knew she was here to stay, at least until those eggs hatched.
A month is a long time to sit on a nest, but Fiona did her job well. She returned home very briefly morning and evening to eat but the rest of the time she sat…and sat…and sat. I found the nest empty once so I reached my hand in carefully to feel how many eggs she had. Unfortunately Fiona was just returning to my yard and she did not take kindly to me touching her precious eggs. Did you know ducks can hiss? And run really fast when they want to? It’s scary!
The big day arrived when nine little yellow puffballs followed their mama around my yard. There is nothing cuter than a baby duck! We ran out to snap a few photos, steering clear of Fiona’s fiercely protective pecks then left them alone to find their way back into our neighbor’s yard.
Fast forward a couple of days and now Fiona and her brood are regular visitors to our koi pond. She takes them back to her own yard to eat and sleep, but at least three times a day they make a field trip to go swimming. It would have been fine if they just swam, but now they were starting to dig in our plants and muddy up the water. I wondered what the fish thought of their new neighbors so I watched carefully. One of our bigger koi started nibbling on a baby duck’s paddling foot and that baby just gave him a good peck. Problem solved. I laughed at their antics but I knew we had to do something because I was tired of dealing with the muddy pond.
Last week as the ducks swam happily I found their secret entrance to my yard. Now to get the ducks out of the pond and back to their own home. I tried shooing them but that didn’t work very well. Next I used my arms and a pond skimmer which helped with the herding somewhat. I managed to get them back to the fence near their escape route but Fiona held her ground pretty well and wasn’t much interested in taking her babies home.
Next idea…maybe if I could grab a couple of babies and push them underneath the fence she’d take the hint. I herded them all against the fence and got close enough to pick up two babies and push them into the yard next door. Fiona went ballistic at that and started attacking me…and ducks peck hard! I managed to get another duckling under the fence when all of a sudden Fiona nipped the tender skin of my forearm and hung on for dear life.
It’s funny how your brain can operate on a couple of different levels at once. As I raised up my arm with the mama duck hanging in midair, one part of me thought, “That’s not right…and it hurts!” But the other part of my brain said, “Hey she’s occupied, now’s my chance to get the rest of those babies out of here.” So with my free hand I kept grabbing and shoving until all the babies were next door peeping for their mama. Fiona let go and I was able to catch her and shove her under the fence too. Whew! It took a couple of cement blocks to fill the space but we haven’t had any more duck visitations since then.
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.
Years ago we added onto our house and remodeled our kitchen, a project I had dreamed of for decades. New cabinets, new floor, new appliances, and new countertops…a dream come true. In all the decisions that come with a big project like this, the most stressful for me was choosing the countertop. Fairly quickly I decided on the material, but picking the color was another story. House décor trends called for warm tans and golds but I really prefer the cool colors like white, grey, and especially blue. I knew this was a once-in-my-lifetime commitment and I didn’t want to make a mistake so I spent most of my time debating over light colors like grey and white. They were all nice, clean-looking, neutral (because what if we had to sell the house???) and I didn’t love any of them, but they were all “safe.”
In the midst of all this, I spoke with my sister about my color angst. She listened patiently and then said, “If you really like blue, then pick blue.” What? Blue countertops? I’d never seen it in any fancy kitchen magazine, or home show, or in real life either. Who would put blue counters in a kitchen? It’s just not done! At least that was my initial reaction. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized she was right. I like blue. In fact, I love blue, and this was my kitchen, and I plan to live here with those countertops for a good long time and who cares about resale value?
I realized my reluctance to choose blue came from a desire to do the reasonable thing, to play it “safe,” to not make waves, to not attract attention, or ruffle anyone’s feathers. And that is my nature. I like being behind the scenes, unnoticed, invisible. But that’s not really how God calls us to live, is it? A life spend hiding is a life half-lived. How many experiences have I missed because I wasn’t willing to be bold? To put my toe outside my comfort zone and risk a little?
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.
My husband, Dave, is quite tall and I am not so it has led to many interesting “discussions” over the years. Hanging a wall picture practically guarantees the inevitable “height war.” Higher, lower, no higher, how about here, no lower and eventually we settle on some middle ground which neither satisfies nor offends either of us.
And while I sincerely appreciate the fact that Dave can reach a serving dish in a high cupboard so I don’t have to climb onto the counter to get it, there are other times when it’s irritating dealing with things like a car seat so far back I can’t even touch the pedals. There’s no getting around it, we just live in different height worlds.
A while back Dave called me to look out our window onto the backyard. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he asked. I couldn’t see anything but dim shadows of trees and was frankly wondering what my thoroughly analytical, practical husband was talking about.
“There, look at the pond,” he said, and still I saw nothing out of the ordinary. “Don’t you see the full moon reflecting off the water?” he asked.
Mystified, I answered no. That’s when it hit us both. Dave could see it and I couldn’t because I wasn’t tall enough. When I stood on a chair the landscape changed dramatically and a brilliant full moon sparkled on the black pond water like none I had ever seen before. It was a gorgeous sight, but one that I simply couldn’t see until I changed my perspective.
I learned a valuable lesson that night. Sometimes a change in perspective makes all the difference.
Sharing our art with others brings up the question, “Is it still art even if no one else ever sees it?” I used to think the answer was a total yes, but now I’m not so sure. Art has both a giving and a receiving aspect. It involves both the artist and the art patron. I believe it was actually meant to be shared with a wider audience and not hoarded by its creator.
As some of you may know, in addition to being an egg artist, I also play the cello. I have been taking lessons for a while now and find it’s the most absorbing and yet most difficult thing I’ve ever attempted. I work hard when I practice and enjoy it tremendously. What I don’t enjoy are the recitals my teacher schedules two or three times each year. Thankfully he has separate ones for his younger and older students. Believe me, it really helps to know I won’t have to follow a fourth grader playing a piece much more difficult than mine. Still, I get nervous at the thought of playing in public. And just so you understand how much of a weenie I am, this particular “public” is only the other adult students and sometimes a few family members. Even so, it is PUBLIC playing, not my usual me-and-the-cello-with-the-door-to-the-rest-of-the-house-closed.
I’ve been told repeatedly that the more you do something, the easier it gets. I know lots of “real musicians” who say they love playing before an audience. I have to say I’m still waiting for that to happen with me. On the feeling scale from “terrifying to fun,” my score is still a lot closer to terrified. But I keep at it because I want to be able to share my music with others. As a growth area in my life, this is not easy but I’m convinced it’s absolutely necessary. My prayer is that I will continue to step outside my comfortable boundaries to see what God has in store for me out there. In the meantime, I have to go practice!
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.
Here’s a simple truth. Life doesn’t always go as planned…and the same thing applies in creating these eggs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started with an idea in my head and then proceeded to do it differently on the egg. Perhaps more often I forget to cover an area with wax and don’t discover it until after the egg comes out of the next darker dye when it’s too late to change anything. That’s what happened on this cross in the photo to the right.
Sometimes I desire a specific color and the egg just won’t take the dye properly so the color scheme changes completely. The egg to the left was supposed to have brilliant clear colors, but instead looks like an ancient, well-loved quilt which I liked even better. In my family we call that experience an “unexpected extra.”
I admit it irritates me at times, but that’s part of the beauty of this art. It can be wonderfully unpredictable which means sometimes the results are more surprising and spectacular than if it had turned out the way I planned. A kindergarten teacher my boys had would always say, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” As I think about it, that applies to creating these eggs but it’s also a pretty good philosophy for life as well.