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HomeArts & CultureLenox resident shares egg-centric decorating tradition

Lenox resident shares egg-centric decorating tradition

Tjassa Sprague of Lenox. (Emily Thurlow)

LENOX — Tjassa Sprague makes a lot of omelets this time of year.
Shortly after Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season, Sprague’s life is inundated with eggs as she practices the art of pysanky or creating Slavic Easter eggs.
This year, Sprague was set to lead two instructional workshops with demonstrations on the time-honored Eastern European craft at Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum in Lenox as she has since the early 2000s. Although there was an attempt to continue the workshops while practicing social distancing, due to growing concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic, the event was canceled, according to Beverly Rainey, executive director at Ventfort Hall.
But that didn’t stop Sprague from engaging in her “yearly obligation” as she calls it.
“It’s an automatic part of my life,” she said. “The obligation to teach just makes sure I have to do it.”
One of the largest gatherings she’s taught at her workshops was to a group of more than 30 members of the Red Hat Society in 2009.
Born in Slovenia, Sprague learned her techniques from her Czechoslovakian mother, Maria Krofta. Her family fled to Italy in 1951 because of the war, she said. When the family moved to Lenox in 1953, Sprague said she was 11 when she remembers decorating eggs with her mother. Sprague has since passed down the tradition to her children and grandchildren.
“It’s something we do every year. March is a terrible month, and this is a good way to pass time while waiting for spring to come,” she said, noting that it takes hours to make just one decorated egg.
Although Easter is a religious holiday, many yearly traditions like decorating eggs have pagan origins. For Sprague, the tradition begins with unwashed eggs, preferably from a local poultry farm as the surface of the shells will be fresh and residue-free.
“Whether it’s white or brown, you need to make sure it hasn’t been commercially dealt with. Smaller shops will have eggs that haven’t gone through machines. They slowly lay a layer of grease and the bellies won’t take color,” she explained. “If you have fresh, local eggs, just rinse dirt off and work on them right away.”
In Slavic tradition or pysanky — which means “to write” or “to inscribe” — the egg is written on or inscribed, not painted, said Sprague. Later in the process, aniline dye is used, she added.
Once the surface of the egg is wiped, Sprague heats up a wax-writing tool called a kistka over an open candle flame. In addition to having a fine tip, the kistka has a collection area for wax, so when heated up and placed beside a piece of wax, the kistka collects the wax and works much like a fountain pen to write on the egg.
“My designs are much more free-form. They’re not as elaborate as the Ukranian ones,” she said. “I make about a dozen before they’re respectable.”
When decorating, Sprague says she typically divides the egg into a few sections and different patterns or designs tend to evolve more organically. By working in sections, she creates more complex patterns of flowers or swirls, for example, because wherever the wax is applied, the dye does not permeate.
After she’s satisfied with one section, she immerses the egg in one of 15 different colors of dye and repeats the process over and over until satisfied.
Unlike her mother, Sprague says she prefers to wait to remove the egg from the shell until after the decorating process is complete.
“My mother used to blow the egg out first, but if you take it out first, it’s a big mess to drain out all the dye,” she said. “It’s much easier and tidier.”
To “blow” the egg out, Sprague first takes a knife and pokes holes in both ends of the egg. She then covers one end that’s facing her with a tissue and directs the other end to a jar, and blows out the egg out into the jar.
From there, Sprague then heats up the egg over the candle to melt the wax. When the wax is wiped off, it reveals the egg’s true colors. Sprague then selects a color ribbon that will complement the design of the Slavic Easter egg.
“And that’s it,” she said looking over a box full of decorated eggs she’s collected over time. “Some I give away, but others, I keep, so I can display them year after year. That’s why I always date them.”


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