By Dominique Liboiron
A few weeks ago, I stated thinking about what I’d write for my Easter column. I decided that pysanka, or Ukrainian Easter eggs, would be a good choice. My plan was to interview Burstall’s Norma Schlaht (pronounced Shlot), an exceptionally-talented artist known for the skill with which she made her pysanka. Unfortunately, I learned she had passed away.
My first reaction was one of surprise because she wouldn’t have been very old. I found her obituary online and learned she had health issues for many years before passing Jan. 10, 2014. She was only 64.
I have fond memories of Norma. She was at a Ukrainian Night I covered for the paper in 2008. This was in Burstall and Norma had some of her exquisite pysanka on display. Being curious of where her interest in Easter eggs came from, I asked Norma if she was from a Ukrainian family. Her response was priceless. “No, no,” she answered, “I’m a Kraut.” We laughed and she began to tell me her story.
Norma was from Leader and first discovered pysanka while working at a hospital. “I had a girlfriend in Medicine Hat that did them, she was a nurse, as well. She did them, but did them so hurriedly. She just didn’t have the workmanship that I put into mine.”
Later, a trip to the home of the world’s largest pysanka enticed Norma to begin dabbling in the art form. Visitors to the Alberta community of Vegreville are greeted by a large, metallic pysanka at the roadside.
“I went to Vegreville and I decided I wanted an egg,” said Norma who saw Ukrainian eggs on display in a gift shop and bought a starter kit.
Norma’s dedication to pysanka, or Ukrainian Easter eggs, earned the Burstall resident dozens of trophies and ribbons, but she was most proud of her international award from the 1998 Canadian Ukrainian celebrations in Dauphin, Man.
She won 20 first place awards at the Vegreville and Dauphin pysanka competitions alone, which are considered two of the most prestigious events to win.
Major Ukrainian festivals at Dauphin and Vegreville still exist, but the pysanka competitions have been absent for many years. In the past, the winning eggs were kept in a museum, but over time the artists simply didn’t want to part with their creations anymore.
For Norma, this reluctance is due to the number of hours needed to perfect each design. “People think doing a pysanka should only take a day. Well, I can do an egg in a day, but it’s got hardly anything on it.”
On average, a chicken egg requires two or three solid days of meticulous work, but the much larger ostrich eggs represents two weeks of precise handcrafting. The fancier she could make them the more pleased she was.
Easter isn’t Easter without decorating eggs, but Norma took it one step further, “When I take the Christmas decorations down, out come the Easter eggs and the dining room table is cluttered for a long while.”
Her detailed pysanka have found their way into many homes in and around Burstall, but have also been purchased by customers in Germany, Switzerland and Italy.
When I interviewed Norma at Burstall’s Ukrainian Night, she sold a pair of ostrich eggs to a collector who wanted to pass them on to her daughters. Though pleased with the sale, the artist was having a hard time finding a supplier, ostrich eggs not being the easiest item to obtain.
Apart from her obvious talent for decorating pysanka, Norma was also skilled at needle point and cross stitch among many other crafts. She was also known for her musical talent, as well.
The pysanka she sold me that night is more special now because there can never be another one made like it. Norma, like her eggs, was one of a kind.