On eggs and God’s mercy: An interview with Alice Sharp of Hart’s Log Hand Made

Alice Sharp is a medieval scholar whose life changed drastically when her second child, Hannah, was born with complex special needs. Hannah’s now two, and much of Sharp’s time is spent at various medical appointments or doing therapeutic care at home.
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“But life is pretty good, here, really, except for lack of sleep,” Sharp says.
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Sharp, who now lives in Toronto, is working to integrate her life as a scholar and caretaker with her formidable artistic skills. She’s recently opened an Etsy shop for her batik dye eggs, which range from traditional to fanciful. Hart’s Log Hand Made offers handmade eggs, including personalized eggs and special commissions.
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Here’s our conversation:

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First things first. How do you pronounce “pysanky?”
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Most people say “pih-SANK-uh.” But last year, I went to a Toronto-based conference and was horrified to discover it’s “PIS-ank-ee.” I’m thirty four, and it’s hard to retrain myself.
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What is the psyanky community like?
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It’s very much a strong community, mostly online, as most things are these days. It’s quite international, of course with people from the Ukraine and Russia and central Europe, doing both traditional eggs, with abstract designs and limited color palettes, and also more diasporate patterns, with more natural depictions of insects or animals, and more detail and a much wider variety of color, as well as new geometric patterns.
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I enjoy playing with traditional patterns, but I do a lot of natural motifs, and meditations on scriptural motifs.
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Why did you begin making eggs? 
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It was partially because I never really thought of myself as a visual artist. My mother ran an alternative art space, with a theater and a poetry reading program and a gallery, when I was young. I hung out with artists, but I was more of a theater geek and a writer. I wrote plays in high school.
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I had a real interest in small things, miniatures. I had a dollhouse, and I would build tiny little Fimo models of things. I was drawn to what we would call “folk art.” I liked the idea of embroidery, but I actually hate to embroider. My mother taught me how to knit. I didn’t think of myself as very good at any of that kind of thing. So that’s one reason: Because the eggs were not something more talented artists were doing. it was something I could have as my own, as my own visual art space.
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Also, they’re pretty cheap, if you’re a pre-teen whose mother doesn’t want to buy a lot of yarn! A dozen eggs, dyes, wax — it’s not really the most expensive outlay.
It’s also very pleasurable to all the senses. The smell of melting the beeswax, the feel of the shell in your hand, the warmth as you melt it off. I wouldn’t recommend tasting it. But I love the tactile nature of the egg and the smell of it.
It sounds somewhat similar to the process of making icons.
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There is a certain meditative culture around it. It was something women would do at the end of the day, when they took a rest and had some quiet time. Sometimes they would sit down and work on in silence.
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For me personally, I’m often trying to think through something that’s been read at Mass, or a [scripture] passage that’s been on my mind. For me, it’s a very prayerful experience. But I would hate to see what an icon would look like if I tried to write one.
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How did you begin to make the connection between eggs and the spiritual life?
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I’m a convert. I was baptized when I was nineteen, in my campus chapel. I really was not raised with a clear idea of much Christian theology. We had a family friend who gave me a “Precious Moments” bible.
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I was in sixth grade and decided I was going to be get really good at making Ukrainian eggs and win this contest. But being the kind of person I am, I never actually submitted the egg. But I did really start looking at what the patterns mean, how they’re built, the geometric divisions, how much white is used. I had a booklet of symbols. It was my first introduction to the resurrection.
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I remember sitting on my parents’ kitchen floor and reading eggs that said, “Christ is risen,” and understanding for the first time why Easter is celebrated. It wasn’t just bunnies and chocolate and giant hams. If anyone had told me Christianity preached the resurrection before, it hadn’t really settled. The eggs are rooted in pagan practices, but for, me they were a real messenger of the Gospel.
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How long does it take you to make an egg, start to finish?
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It’s a multi-day process. It wouldn’t have to be, if you were uninterrupted, but when are we uninterrupted?
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For an egg that is just one or two colors, with a fairly simple pattern, it will take maybe three to four hours. Not all of that is hands-on waxing or dyeing. There’s a need to stop, to let the eggshell rest and dry. One thing I’ve learned is how important it is to respect the shell. I never really know what it’s going to look like, because every shell is different. Every hen is different. The shell could take dye or vinegar differently from another one. Some are pale, some are dark, some are spotty.
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Then, when you get more complex, the hours keep adding up. The basic mechanics is you move from pale colors to dark colors. Anywhere you want that color to stay, you put wax over it. You can get more complicated, and wash dyes off with vinegar or soap or a combination, and that adds time, because you need to let it rest. You don’t want the shell to get too saturated, because then liquid will start coming back up out through the pores.
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You posted pictures of an egg that turned out much paler than you were expecting. What else can go wrong, in all those steps?
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Well, there’s the basic breaking. At the workshop I was in last year, I was washing a color off, and I dropped it in the sink. There was my day, all gone in the sink.
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Then there’s cracks, particularly around the hole. And if it gets too wet, or moisture gets inside, it will come back out again.
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What happened with the egg [in the photos I posted], I think the shell got too cold, and the wax didn’t really adhere firmly. It was a brown eggshell I was etching in vinegar. You put the shell in vinegar, and any part that doesn’t have wax on it will dissolve a bit. One step is scrubbing it with a child’s toothbrush to get the layers off. But the wax started to peel off. So I used a tiny paintbrush, which I use for spot dyes, and I ended up just painting it.
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I do it all on an Ikea desk in a 825-square-foot apartment.
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Do you have a clear picture in your mind of how you want an egg to look, or does it change as you go?
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I do change it as I go. If I’m going to make a new design, like the sunflower egg, I start with an experiment. I’ll start noodling around with the wax and see what happens. Through the process, I’ll start noticing, “This part runs into the other part of the pattern,” or “that part is too complex; that part needs more balance.” Then I do a second or even a third egg, to really master what it should look like.
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Being a medieval scholar, do you feel any conflict when you invent new designs, rather then preserving traditions?
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I probably should, but I don’t really worry about traditions being lost. There’s people very passionate about preserving folkloric and talismanic traditions, keeping records, photographing everything for books. There’s a real wealth of information on the internet.
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Very rarely, someone who’s not familiar with it will say, “These don’t look like the eggs my grandmother made.” And they’re right. That’s why I say I do batik dye eggs, rather than saying I made pysanka. What I’m doing is inspired by Ukrainian folk art, but it’s not necessarily what someone is expecting.
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Does the process relate to your scholarly work at all?
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I did my dissertation on a twelfth-century commentary on Genesis. As I was working with this medieval text and looking at manuscripts, there were two stages of the text. Someone had taken it apart and inserted more commentary. It was sort of a gloss on the text, sort of like Talmudic commentary.
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Having struggled with trying to fix things into a limited space, I had this very visceral sense of what it would be like to be a scribe trying to figure out what kind of space you would need. I found myself gesturing with my hands, trying to figure out how to divide up the page, because each manuscript is going to be copied. Just like each egg is going to be different, the parchment size is different, each scribe will be different. Just like with eggs, where you have to think about the shape and the shell.
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The starburst egg, that I’ve made a ton of, is sort of rooted in when I was doing my oral exams. I was thinking about angels and light, those angelic wings going every which way, looking like fire. I didn’t put on dozens and dozens of eyes, though.
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You wrote about how you used to keep a hobby blog, but that fell away as your professional life got more busy. Then your life changed radically, and now you once again return to making things. What kind of balance are you looking for?
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I would like to get back to writing more about the Middle Ages for a broader audience someday. My life is not in a space right now where I have that kind of mental space. I need something I can pick up for fifteen minutes while Hannah’s in her stander, and then put down and move back to the next appointment, or answer a question about the teeth of whale sharks.
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I never really feel like I wasted the time I spent studying or making connections, because I’ve been in such a supportive community. My advisor would like me to get back to writing a critical gloss.
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The tagline for your blog is “making the best of the unexpected.” It sounds like what you do with your eggs. Is it also about how your life has changed?

It’s a large part of who I am. It’s such a hard balance. Like any child, I learn from being her mother. But she is her own unique, wonderful person, and she doesn’t just exist to teach me things. I don’t want to objectify her. Being her mother is full of agonizing grief, sometimes full of excitement. Sometimes it’s really boring:  For the next few hours, we’re going to work on eating this solid food.
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We were in Rome for my in laws’ wedding, during the Year of Mercy. Before we went through the door, I read a letter by Pope Francis that said, “Let God surprise you in this year of mercy.” I thought, “I guess I’m getting pregnant this year.” And I did. Hannah has been surprising in so many ways. Many of them have actually taught me about God’s mercy.
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 Is your psyanky time something you want to eventually teach to your son, or is it something you need to keep as non-kid time?
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For me, it is non-kid time. I’m working with Isaac now on baking and cooking. I do have a picture of Isaac as a two-year-old, sitting on my lap and helping me make an egg with an electric stylus (so there’s no candle involved).
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I’m hoping we can have a chance to give it a first try. I was a little older than he was when I learned. And I’m not as patient as my mother was when she taught me. But my children do not exist for my growth experience.
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You figured that out quickly, after only two kids!
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I’m on the crash course plan.
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You posted that you had to declare the weight of the goods you were shipping, and it was  .007 kilos. As a creative person and a scholar, do you have problems with the logistics of running a business?

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The hardest part is the imposter complex, which is an old friend, since I have a PhD. I think, “People will get these [eggs] and hate them. They’ll see there’s a flaw.” That’s my biggest challenge. I’m pretty good with boring paperwork, doing tax forms. What I struggle with is the advertising, making sure I’m tagging things properly, writing the search engine optimized descriptions. That’s where I wish I could outsource.

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If people want eggs before Easter, when should they order – in the US and in Canada?
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I have three tiers.
The eggs I made will be updated until the fourth Sunday of Lent; then I can’t expect them to get there [to customers] in time. If people want to see those eggs, they can “like” the Facebook page, or “like” the Etsy shop.
I do made-to-order eggs that I’ve done the design work for, but I can change the color or text, and those will be done ASAP.
Then there are commissions. I design an egg for you, then it goes through a series of several sketches, and I talk to you about it, do one or two practice eggs, and then the final egg. Those are sold out for Easter. I am running a waiting list for after Easter, for Mother’s Day, or weddings.
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