PUBLISHED: 4:10 PM on Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Juneau artist designs eggs-actly the right gift
Juneau Artists Gallery presents the Pysanky egg works of Charlie Detjen at First Friday's Gallery Walk on December 7th. He offers designs from the largest ostrich eggs to the smallest quail eggs. This holiday season, Charlie is introducing decorated hair barrettes made of ostrich shell as well as his popular egg shell earrings, bolos and necklaces.

"Pysanky eggs are typically made to be given to family members and loved or respected friends," Detjen said. "To give a pysanka is to give a symbolic gift of life."

The art of the decorated egg dates back to pagan times, around 4,000 B.C. Folk tales suggest that the people who lived in the region now known as Ukraine worshipped the sun. It warmed the earth and thus, was a source of all life. Birds were the sun god's chosen creations for they were the only ones who could get near to him. Humans could not catch the birds, but they did manage to obtain the eggs the birds laid. Thus, the eggs were considered magical objects, a source of life.

Detjen goes on to explain that with the acceptance of Christianity in 988 A.D., the decorated pysanky continued to play an important role in Ukrainian rituals of the new religion. Many symbols of the old sun worship survived and were adapted to Christian holidays.

  Charlie Detjen
In addition to traditional Pysanky symbols, Detjen takes inspiration from Southeast Alaska and its natural beauty. His artwork includes salmon, fishing flies, puffins, forget-me-nots and more.

Detjen married into the Pysanky tradition and has been making these one-of-a-kind eggs in the Ukrainian tradition since 1984.

"My mother-in-law taught me the basic techniques and the mystical symbolism of Pysanky that was passed down through generations of her Ukrainian family ancestors," Detjen said.

For thousands of years, the peasants of the Ukraine and other Eastern European regions decorated eggshells with melted beeswax and dye. The methods used to make them is similar to batik - patterns are drawn on the egg with hot molten wax, which then protects the covered areas from the next color dye that is applied. By repeating the process with different colors of dye, a multi-colored pattern is built up. Finally the wax is melted and removed to reveal the colors that were previously covered.

"The average chicken egg takes four hours while a goose egg takes six to eight hours and an ostrich egg takes more than 40 hours," Detjen said. "They are entirely made by hand with no stencils, guides or decals ever used."

All the eggs have been emptied to prevent spoilage. To further enhance the permanence, eggs are dipped in a tough, durable polymer resin finish.

Courtesy Photo
  Charlie Detjen offers designs from the largest ostrich eggs to the smallest quail eggs, to be presented at First Friday's Gallery Walk on Dec. 7.
"The eggs are not as fragile as you might think," Detjen said. "Properly cared for, these eggs will last indefinitely. In fact, they transport extremely well and since they are light, cost very little to ship."

When asked if he breaks any while making them, Detjen said, "Not as many as I used to!"

Detjen has always enjoyed making things by hand, especially projects that are three dimensional, intricate and detailed. This interest in "working small" translated well into his previous career, dentistry. He served with the U.S. Coast Guard from 1975 to 2001, the majority of the time spent in Alaska. Detjen and his family have lived in Juneau since 1991 and he now devotes himself full time to the Pysanky art.

Holiday shoppers are invited to see Detjen's pysanky egg designs and graze on the best Gallery Walk treats in town at the Juneau Artists Gallery on Friday evening, Dec. 7, in the Senate Mall Building downtown.