Meet Annella, the artist behind the beautiful “pisanki“, Polish traditional Easter eggs. I first met Annella when I was placed with her family to spend a school year as an exchange student. Annella was 4 years old. It was fun watching her grow up and embrace Polish heritage, always present within her family. She is a talented artist and a beautiful human being. We spent a little bit of time talking about her connection to Poland, why it is important to keep Polish traditions alive and she’ll tell us all about the complicated process of making these pieces of art.
What are your connections to Polish heritage?
Where can I start except the beginning? I was named after my great-grandmother, Aniela Pientka (née Spietzka), who was affectionately called Anielka. Even at a young age I was always fond of the fact that my name carried that connection to my heritage. My five siblings and I were raised to respect Polish history, culture, and traditions, so the importance of Polish heritage has always been very prevalent in my family. Thanks to my parents I grew up with feelings of pride for my Polish roots and still feel that deep sense of pride to this day. Polish creativity is a defining element of my family. My father, Boleslaw Kochanowski, is an accomplished artist blacksmith and he forges exquisite custom wrought-iron (http://www.boleslawkochanowski.com). This craft has been passed down to my brothers, and goes back through the generations; My grandfather, after whom my father was named, learned his craft in Poland until he received his journeyman status. He was following in the tradition of his father’s brother (my great-uncle) who had a blacksmith shop in Kotlice, Poland before the Second World War. Hospitality and good food are well-known in Polish culture, and at my parents’ home these are also evident. My mother, Anna Kochanowski, is a phenomenal cook and always has something delicious prepared (usually in abundance) when you walk into her kitchen. Not only will she cater Polish feasts for our big family gatherings, which we have regularly, but her cooking is equally wonderful for the average weekday meal, too. Some of the dishes I most enjoy include her savory soups with barley, sorrel, or mushrooms, her gorgeous gołąbki roasted with a generous splash of pickle juice instead of tomatoes (an alteration my mother adapted from my Grandmother Jadwiga’s recipe), and the bountiful amounts of bigos she makes with kapusta and kiełbasa. Many of the Polish recipes she learned were passed down through our family and have continued in my kitchen as well. Another aspect that enhances my Polish identity is the fact that a big part of the community in Central Wisconsin, where I grew up, descended from Polish immigrants who came to the area in the mid-1800’s. With the variety of Polish heritage organizations and churches that have since been established, the Polish community and its traditions are enthusiastically celebrated with various festivals and annual events. My parents were both involved in a number of these groups so, naturally, I eventually became involved as well. At one time, I was even the vice-president of the Polish club during my undergrad at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point before I studied a semester abroad in Kraków.
How did you get involved in making pisanki? Who taught you this difficult art?
My mother, always having been an artistic and crafty person, became interested in pisanki when she saw a demonstration at a local arts fair when she was young. It stuck with her and years later she explored the Polish craft more after she had children. I remember making pisanki with my siblings every year during the Easter season when I was a little girl. It was also a special treat when my mom would come to our elementary school and give demonstrations to the art classes there. I was thrilled when I got to be her helper for my classmates. My mother also did pisanki classes for the Polish organizations she was a part of as well as at assisted living centers in the area. It was an easy transition to start leading classes myself once I was in college.
Can you explain the process of making each egg?
Decorating eggs is a traditional folk art for many ethnic groups, especially those in Eastern Europe. Therefore many different styles of pisanki exist. My style resembles that of the Polish-Lemko culture. To create a pisanka, first I hollow out an egg by drilling a small hole into each end with my Dremel drill. I wiggle a toothpick around inside the shell to break the yolk which makes it easer to blow the content out into a bowl (great for scrambled eggs). After rinsing and drying the eggshell, I’m ready to start my design. Typically I like to very lightly outline a grid-pattern of some sort on the shell with pencil to keep my design even and symmetrical. Then, using a candle and pin-head stylus, I apply molten wax to the egg one stroke at a time. Historically, beeswax is the preferred medium but I find certain tealights to be much more economical. After what is usually well over 200 strokes, I am ready to dye my egg. Depending how dark I want the color, or how pigmented the dye is, the egg will sit in the dye anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. At this point (once the egg has been removed from the dye) the wax can either be melted off to reveal the design which will be the color of the eggshell, or more wax can be applied to further embellish the design with multiple colors. This wax-resist method is very similar to the process of batik.
How long does it take you to make one pisanka? What’s the most difficult part of making them?
This is the most common question I get from people once they see my pisanki! The truth is I don’t ever just make one pisanka at a time. I’ll make them in batches one step at a time, such as blowing out the eggs, then take that batch and move on to the next step, applying the first layer of wax for instance. This process easily takes many hours, even days to finish a dozen or half a dozen at a time. But to give you an answer, it might take between 1-2 hours to finish just one, not counting the time it takes to varnish the pisanka and string it up with ribbon and beads. The most difficult part of the process for me isn’t all that difficult, it’s just tedious – mixing up the dyes. It’s messy, and I tend to be a somewhat tidy person. To avoid rainbow-dyed countertops I usually take this step of the process outside.
How many eggs have you made (this was a question from Hanna, age 12)?
It’s really hard to say since I’ve been making pisanki for over 25 years. I’m sure it’s close to 1,000 though! My biggest project however was when I made 300 pisanki in different shades of blue as party favors for my wedding in 2016. It took me about 10 months and all my free time.
What’s your inspiration? How do you decide on colors and designs?
I am definitely inspired by nature, especially flowers and vines, and the concept of calligraphy, but also by geometric patterns I find in everyday objects. I’ve been known to take seemingly random pictures of things, such as the intricate fabric of a person’s shirt or maybe even a rather pleasing box of tissues, as a means to collect design ideas. My style developed a lot by trial and error – when you make a mistake applying the wax, resulting in a nice big glob in the middle of your design, there’s no erasing. You just have to work around it and make it look intentional. New designs have more than once emerged this way for me. Studying the pisanki of other artists also gives me ideas. Learning through imitation absolutely has its merits but I try to always be unique in what I create. The techniques I use are essentially traditional, yet I wouldn’t call my designs exclusively as such since I’m almost purely acting on a whim with each stroke building off the next. The designs create themselves in a sense. That’s part of the fun of it for me. In my mind the colors work the same way. I’m never entirely sure how an egg will take the dye, or how the already dyed egg will react with the next dye, and so on. There’s an element of surprise at work, too.
Why is it important for you to showcase Polish folk art in America?
Generally speaking, the vast multitude of the world’s folk art is widely unknown to people in America unless it is part of their own cultural heritage or assimilated into their regional environment. In my own experience I’ve noticed I appreciate the folk arts of other cultures more because I immersed myself in this one type. I understand the commitment it takes to bring an idea to fruition therefore I can recognize the effort and love that goes into any other type of art, folk or otherwise. The great Spanish cellist, Pablo Casals said it best, “The love of one’s country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?” By sharing this art-form I hope to enrich those who happen upon it with one of the many beauties of the Polish culture.
How do you get involved in the Polish community around you?
Connecting with others who value their Polish heritage has been my good fortune as a pisanki artist in the Twin-Cities area of Minnesota. But I really must thank my sister, Julida Alter, for initiating my pisanki-debut to the public when I moved here a few years ago. As a teacher within the Minneapolis Public Schools, she invited me to teach a couple art classes with her school’s after-school program which then lead me to also offer pisanki classes through Minneapolis Community Education. In one of those classes a self-proclaimed “spy” for a local Polish organization attended my class to see if I was any good. Luckily, I passed the test and was contacted to participate in the Twin Cities Polish Festival to demonstrate my pisanki process during their big, annual summer event. At the festival I met lots of Polish people who were interested in my craft, and subsequently have been invited to a handful of other organizations’ events over the last few years. I especially love working with children so I thoroughly enjoyed getting the chance to work with the students of Holy Cross Polish Saturday School in Minneapolis, and with families that attended the Carpathian Festivals in St. Paul. I am so lucky to keep meeting friendly people who are intrigued by what I do. This inquisitive interest inspires me to happily continue sharing my art with anyone who wants to learn!
It was a pleasure talking to Annella and I wish her many successful adventures ahead.
Annella Platta (née Kochanowski) received her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point in 2011 and she joined the Suzuki Piano faculty in Minneapolis at the MacPhail Center for Music in September 2014. Through performing and teaching Annella enjoys sharing her love of the arts including the art of Pisanki. To promote her work and the tradition of pisanki Annella has collaborated with various organizations including cultural festivals, nursing homes, and small businesses in Stevens Point, WI and in the Twin Cities. She has taught art classes for middle school students and adults in coordination with Minneapolis Community Education as well as the Polish Saturday School in Minneapolis. Annella has participated in the Stevens Point Cultural Festival, the Twin Cities Polish Festival, and the Carpathian Festival held in St. Paul demonstrating the art of pisanki while giving others the opportunity to learn about and experience the art form. You can follow “Annella’s Pisanki” on facebook atfacebook.com/annellaspisanki.