BROOKS — Her parents fled Ukraine generations ago, during World War II, and joined the massive diaspora that settled in Philadelphia.

Lesia Sochor grew up there with thousands of other Ukranian immigrant families. They had their own church, their own school, even their own Girl Scout troop – bound together by heritage and cultural traditions.

Over time, many of those traditions have faded, but Sochor, who is now 69 and has lived in Midcoast Maine for much of her adult life, keeps one close.

Every spring, as the Easter holiday approaches, she takes up the ritual known in her homeland as pysanky – decorating eggs with ancient, often colorful designs steeped in symbolism. Over the years, Sochor has hosted workshops at schools and libraries, teaching thousands of Maine children the same technique her mother taught her decades earlier. A painter by trade, Sochor also has used pysanky in a series of paintings currently being exhibited at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts. Laura Garrity-Arquitt, the museum’s registrar, called the work “stunning and powerful.”

Sochor in her studio at her home in Brooks. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I think people felt that the egg was such a fitting symbol of spring because it’s this seemingly inanimate object, but what’s inside is filled with life,” Sochor said last month from her home, where she has a sun-filled studio over the garage. “So, for generations – literally hundreds of years – this tradition just flourished and grew. And for me personally, being in a Ukrainian household, it was something that was done every spring. And I loved it. I loved the whole feeling about it.”

This year, the ritual has turned somber. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February has been followed by weeks of bloodshed with no clear end in sight. Sochor doesn’t have any close relatives there anymore and hasn’t visited since the mid-1990s, but it weighs on her. She can only watch so much news coverage.

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In some ways, though, the fighting in Ukraine is a reminder of why she returns to the traditional egg decorating of her people every spring. She’s preserving a small part of a heritage that so many are fighting, and dying, for.

“The older I get, the more it matters, the more I think about it,” she said. “They say older people go back to memories of their childhood or retell old stories … I really feel that happening. And so, I treasure it more.”

PASSING ON THE TRADITION

The tradition of pysanky – which translates as “to write” or “to inscribe” – dates back as far as 5,000 B.C. in what is now present-day Ukraine. Some eggs are ceramic, but artists mostly use real chicken or duck eggs.

They are made using a traditional wax resist process. First, beeswax is melted gently with a candle. Once the wax is the proper consistency, artists use a tool called a “kystka” to draw intricate designs on the egg with the wax. Once the wax dries, the eggs are dipped into a series of dyes. The final pattern is revealed when the hardened wax is removed.

Sochor with the kystka a tool she uses with beeswax to design her psyanky. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I don’t remember it vividly, you know, it was always just a thing,” Sochor said of her early memories learning the art. “And not just in my family.”

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The ritual was often associated with Christianity and the resurrection of Jesus, now celebrated as Easter. Although some Ukrainians observe Easter in the Orthodox tradition, a week later, her family observed the western calendar and will celebrate this Sunday. But some of the symbolism that still exists today predates any organized religion. Snakes embodied protection; bees offered hope for a good supply of honey.

Growing up in Philadelphia with so many other displaced Ukrainian families, Sochor said Easter felt bigger than Christmas. There were massive baskets filled with pysanky, but also with edible hard-boiled eggs, kielbasa and babka, a type of sweet bread.

“We would take them to Holy Saturday (the day before Easter) to be blessed. That was your Easter morning breakfast,” she said.

By the time she reached high school, though, Sochor said she lost interest in the pysanky tradition.

“I couldn’t care less about that,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh god, this is so boring, I’ve done this forever, I’m not going to do it anymore.’ ”

That lasted only so long.

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“When you have children, there you are, going back to your roots. I wanted my kids to know how to decorate these Ukrainian eggs.”

By then, Sochor was living in Brooks, a rural town inland from Belfast. She and her husband, who is now deceased, were back-to-the-landers, and she became part of a burgeoning arts scene and co-founded the first artist cooperative in Belfast.

Still, hers was probably the only Ukrainian family around for miles, she guessed.

“My sister lived near Boston, and they still had a Ukrainian church there, so we were able to continue the full tradition,” Sochor said.

Now, her grown daughter has a son, who is 5. She also has five step-grandchildren. Another generation to inherit the ritual.

‘MISS RUMPHIUS OF EGGS’

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When her own children were in school, word began to spread about her annual tradition.

“It’s kind of crazy how it evolved, it was completely organic,” Sochor said. “I would just make eggs with my kids and then my daughters friends noticed and then their parents said, ‘Oh this is so wonderful.’ And then the Girl Scouts called me and then it just became a thing. Different organizations started calling me, and I was like, ‘Sure, I’ll come and do that.’ ”

She had joined the Maine Arts Commission and started traveling throughout the state doing residencies at high schools.

Pysanky made by Sochor. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I kind of feel like I’m the Miss Rumphius of eggs,” she said, referring to the character from the popular children’s book by Barbara Cooney who wanted to beautify the world by planting lupines everywhere she went. Cooney’s inspiration for the title character was Hilda Hamlin, who did in fact spread lupine seeds along the Maine coast.

At some point, Sochor wanted to take the eggs she made every spring and turn them into something more lasting.

“I’m first and foremost a painter,” she said. “The eggs themselves are somewhat limiting. You can’t really exhibit them. A painting is so much more. You can reach a broader audience.”

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Sochor also found that the eggs became a catalyst for another form of expression. Using an egg as the basis for painting allowed her to really explore the symbolism.

Painting by Lesia Sochor, ‘Fertility,’ oil on canvas, 31×40, 1995. Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Icons

In one painting, titled “Fertility,” a woman holds a red patterned pysanka at her stomach, just below her naval. “Gift of Old Age” shows a closeup of old, weathered hands cradling an egg. Another features an old woman, wearing a babushka, or headscarf, creating a pysanka with a bowl of finished eggs on the table near her. She is lit only by the candle used to melt the beeswax. Sochor’s own mother posed for that photo about a year before she died in 1998.

They are among 23 paintings, mostly oil on canvas but some watercolors, currently on exhibit at the Museum of Russian Icons in Massachusetts.

Her paintings had been exhibited in 2020 but then were taken down and held in storage with the thought that they might be offered as a traveling exhibit.

Painting by Lesia Sochor, ‘Gift of Old Age,’ oil on canvas, 10×12, 1996. Courtesy of the Museum of Russian Icons

That never happened, but then last month, Sochor got a call.

“They said they wanted to reinstall the show to stand in solidarity with Ukraine and I said, ‘God, that’s fantastic. Yes, I would love that,’ ” she said.

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Sochor even created three new pieces in response to the current crisis in Ukraine that will be featured.

ROOTED IN FAMILY

Garrity-Arquitt, registrar at the Museum of Russian Icons, said the facility had been looking for an opportunity to feature artists with Ukrainian roots and thought reinstalling Sochor’s work was the perfect opportunity to do that.

“The response has been entirely positive. People are coming specifically for that exhibit,” Garrity-Arquitt said. “What’s going on in Ukraine is awful, but there is an opportunity here for people to learn about the culture through her work. What’s more appropriate than that?”

The museum also has hosted pysanky classes every spring for the last 12 years, long before they knew of Sochor’s work. They sold out this year.

The exhibit will be on display at the Museum of Russian Icons until July 24.

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Closer to home, her paintings have been exhibited at the Farnsworth Museum and Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, Elizabeth Moss Galleries in Falmouth and the Belfast Free Library, to name a few. Some of her recent work has been acquired by the Alex Katz Foundation, a major collector of contemporary artwork.

Much of Sochor’s work – her pysanky collection included – is connected in some way to her family history, especially her mother, who was a seamstress.

She has a series of paintings based on naked mannequins often found in storefront windows to explore aspects of the feminine experience and spark conversations about image, sexuality and the cultural connection to clothing.

Another series included closeup paintings of spools of thread in various colors.

More recently, she’s been working on a series called “Repair” that imagines ripped denim with different symbols sewn into the tears. One of them was an outline of her family’s native country.

The broader message is that things should be mended and restored, rather than cast aside.

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Sochor holds one of her pysanky designs with the sunflower, the national flower of Ukraine, where her family is from. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

However her art has evolved over the years, though, she returns each spring to pysanky. She never tires of it.

“Because you only do it once a year and only for a short amount of time,” she said.

Laura Scheinkopf, who participated in one of Sochor’s workshops at Waterfall Arts in Belfast this spring, said Sochor told stories about the cultural significance of pysanky from her perspective as a first-generation Ukrainian.

“At the end of workshop, Lesia and I spoke briefly about the revival of interest in psyanka egg decorating, and how, as wonderful as it is, we wish it wasn’t having to happen like this, for all the wrong reasons,” Scheinkopf said. “Still, I’m grateful to have experienced psyanky, and am left with deep reverence for Ukrainian culture.”

In her artist’s note that accompanies the exhibit, Sochor wrote about her own internal struggle given what’s happening now, and why it matters now more than ever to keep the tradition close.

“Ukraine has endured historical hardships but remains fortified in its beliefs and determination to steer its own path,” she said. “I am honored to share this work which connects me to my roots, the homeland of my ancestors.”


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