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VOL. 128 | NO. 249 | Monday, December 23, 2013

Memphian Keeps Ukrainian Art Alive

By ERINN FIGG

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More than 1,000 years ago, a group of Ukrainian women gathered in a small house for a very important task. They had spent the day spiritually preparing for it, avoiding gossip, quietly attending to family matters and cooking a hearty family meal.

Memphis artist Ansley Larsson keeps the Ukrainian art of pysanky alive.

(Ansley Larsson)

Once the children of the house were asleep, the women got to work. Because this duty was a sacred one, they worked mostly in silence and no one else was allowed in the room. The women traced intricate designs and ancient symbols in beeswax on fresh, fertile eggs before dyeing them various colors. For each egg, called a pysanka, the women bestowed a different blessing, as they believed the wax would seal in these good wishes. The purpose of the ritual was to transfer goodness to the designs and push away evil in the home, so each completed egg was a symbol of power and love. After several evenings of work, many eggs – called pysanky in the plural – would be completed by Holy Thursday and ready for Easter.

The ancient Ukrainian art of pysanky writing dates back more than 2,000 years, although the associated symbolism changed in 988 with the acceptance of Christianity.

Today, one woman in Memphis is keeping the ancient art alive.

Heritage did not play a role in Ansley Larsson’s determination to master the art of creating pysanky. There are no Ukrainians in her family tree. Instead, some people might describe Larsson’s introduction to the art as the hand of fate at work or love at first sight: In 1980, Larsson just happened to catch a pysanky-writing demonstration in Minneapolis and got instantly hooked.

“I was fascinated. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen,” she said.

So she bought a book, supplies and kits and started practicing.

“I haven’t really looked back since.”

A former counselor in alcoholic treatment programs, Larsson now creates pysanky full-time. She primarily sells her work through area crafts shows, such as the current WinterArts holiday gift gallery at Saddle Creek South in Germantown (winterartsmemphis.com), although she also makes many sales on her Facebook page (facebook.com/ansleylarsson). She does have an Etsy store, but it’s on hiatus for a while.

Like many artists and sales professionals, Larsson developed her selling tactics through trial and error.

“I started by selling eggs on stands. Although people thought they were really cool, they just didn’t want to spend that money on an egg, mainly because they were concerned that it would break.”

Next, she started making Christmas ornaments.

“I went from chicken eggs to goose eggs to ostrich eggs. They did OK, but one day my friend looked at an ostrich egg and said, ‘Hey, that would make a great lamp.’”

Eureka, well, maybe.

Her husband made the lamp stand and Larsson decorated the egg. The finished products were stunning. Yet still, not many people were buying.

“I tried selling it without any understanding of how the market works,” she said. “I tried to sell it wholesale, but no one’s going to crafts fairs looking for lamps.”

The turning point occurred in 2009 at WinterArts, in which Larsson was – and has been ever since – a participant.

“When I got involved with WinterArts, at first I sold Christmas ornaments, ostrich egg lamps and ostrich eggs. Sales were OK, but meanwhile I was watching other artists sell the daylights out of jewelry.”

So she developed a way to transform the pysanky into jewelry using special tools to cut out various shapes and then coating them with epoxy. She signs the back of every earring she makes.

Greg Belz, director of WinterArts, said Larsson’s jewelry is among the most popular purchases at the holiday shopping bazaar.

“Her dedication to her craft is inspired purely by love of the art, not by material gain from it,” he said. “In transforming this ancient art form into wearable jewelry, she has also created a new market for her work.”

Like many WinterArts customers, Belz said he is in awe of the craftsmanship that goes into each egg.

“What Ansley does is the most tedious work one can imagine, and the results are breathtaking. It kills me that so few people grasp the skill and time that are involved in the process of creating pysanky,” he said. “However, when an explanation of the steps does result in the occasional epiphany as to its intricacies, I just love seeing the sense of wonder on the face of the beholder.”

Larsson’s art is priced from $22 for certain pairs of earrings to $150 for a pysanky goose egg. She also sells tiny pysanky quail eggs.

Her advice to others who may want to try it? Unfortunately at the moment, she’s not teaching classes right now. However, she is open to doing small private classes and even one-on-one classes, depending on her schedule.

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