Paul Wirhun has worked on eggshells since he was a child. He believes that eggs are events – not simply objects. The facility of the shell for a range of techniques allows him a great range of visual expression on erotic ideas, events, and fantasies. Egg making is a sacred magical art.
From an early age you were interested in art on eggshells, do you remember how it all started and why you were so fascinated by eggs?
My work on and with eggshells began when I was quite young growing up in a family of Ukrainian descent in which I was taught the ancient folk art known as pysanky by my mother. This ancient folk art is a way of creating talismans (power objects) by using a wax resist process with beeswax drawn on the shell to create complex designs which are actually symbols used to convey the meaning for the use of that talisman. I quickly mastered this craft, and by the time I was in middle school was demonstrating the process to local groups and was selling my eggs locally where I grew up in Connecticut. This success boosted my self-esteem, while allowing me to feel connected to my Ukrainian roots.
I never stopped creating these traditional eggs while growing older, and found myself fascinated by the cultic and cultural origins of this ancient art form. After leaving college seminary (never continuing to priesthood), I was left unsure of what path to choose for my life throughout my 20’s. Being encouraged by other artists after moving to Provincetown around the time I turned 30, I had an epiphany that I could continue working on eggs, while exploring non-traditional designs using the same media and techniques. Thus began my life as an artist and for the past 25 years I’ve explored the use of eggshells as a substrate for visual expression of my ideas, dreams and desires. I find that eggshells are challenging in their fragility, yet incredibly versatile in their uses, allowing me to batik, brush paint, scratch, etch, and gild their surfaces.
How easy or difficult is it to find eggshells the size you need? What is your process there?
It has become increasingly easy to source the various types of eggs on which I work, as there are more farmers raising larger birds (ostriches, emus, rheas) for meat and making their surplus eggshells available for the community of artists working on these shells. Through the years I have been able to know which farmers or suppliers would have which types of shells I desired. Most of the shells I use for collages, paintings, or mosaics are recycled from my kitchen, as I tend to use the shells I’ve saved from cooking, and these shells are found at either a grocery store or farmers’ market.
You also have been working on quite a few projects, how do you come up with the ideas for these projects?
The larger art projects I’ve created or conceived usually come from deep concerns with our environment (The Big EGG and 1000 Globes), politics (THE SKULL PROJECT), or places (10 Days that Shook the World). The last listed was a fun way to realize a wall mural using a resist process (torn painters’ tape and spray paint), similar to the batik process used on eggshells.
The other projects I’ve conceived have come to me through my spiritual practice, filtered through my concerns for the environmental and political degradation we’ve experienced in our society. I fear we suffer from greed and ambivalence in both areas, leading to plastics pollution in the oceans or corruption in our political system leading to wars. These concerns filter up through my consciousness in dreams, while meditating, or using sex magickal practices. Eggs are the product of the reproductive functioning on birds, and it is not lost on me how erotic energies continually recreate the world.
From the outset of my studio practice, I have used the motto: “ancient design for a new worldview.” I look to the deep cultic use of eggs as a way to find wisdom that is inherent in these ancient designs and the desire to change the world through the use of these talismen. I find that eggs still hold deep symbolic value and power for most people, for their being new life itself, as eggs are de facto new life. For me, this offers the possibility of creating a new world through looking to ancient wisdom often lost in our age of fast paced technology.
I’ve often noted that the Earth is as fragile as an eggshell and we would do well to be more aware of the inter-connectedness of our lives and the environment that literally sustains us. This wisdom is not lost to indigenous peoples, who have retained their ancient wisdom; unfortunately industrialization annihilates folk culture and the wisdom it retains. Looking to this worldview through the artwork of my ancestors in these eggs (as talismen), has allowed me to be more sensitive and aware of the problems created by contemporary culture.
Your new work is consisting of broken eggshells, how did you decide to move from a whole egg to a broken one?
There are several factors that caused me to explore this newer style of work with eggshells. Eggshells are fragile, and crack or break while being created in the studio. While I finish pieces with at least ten coats of lacquer to protect them, sometimes these would also break. I decided to keep these broken shards for some future use. I also discovered the traditional Japanese lacquering technique known as rankaku, which uses eggshells to create designs. There also was the desire to expand the surface area for my artistic expression, as the largest egg possible is the ostrich shell is still only about 6” in height.
All these ideas were swimming in my head while living in Provincetown for a few years and it wasn’t until I moved to NYC in 1998 that I began exploring this idea. What motivated me was the attack on 9/11/2001, when I decided to create my first collage entitled; “Is Paradise lost = Again?” This collage included broken goose and chicken shells, featuring an iconographic image of the Archangel Michael (who had expelled Adam and Eve from Eden), flying over a swirling mass of NYC’s fiery destruction below. The breaking of these completed shells into an incoherent mash of images felt right for the feelings that welled up during that time.
Part of this process has also been a desire to work with the idea of recycling lost materials: the boards I use are found on the street or through dumpster diving, the shells are detritus from my studio and/or shells from cooking in my kitchen. It allowed me to express various ideas on a larger surface and jelled with my desire to create art without spending too much money for materials, and practice what I preached in terms of recycling as an ecological endeavor. Mind you, I am well aware that my use of lacquer and the strong epoxy in this process are not that environmentally friendly!
From collages I moved to eggshell encrusting found wood to create a surface on which I could paint, using the egg dyes in my studio as a watercolor medium. Most recently I have begun to create mosaics with pre-dyed shells that are epoxied to found wood, sanded and lacquered. All these techniques have opened newer vistas for my artistic expression, while keeping me focused within this narrowed medium of using eggshells as my métier.
How are the surroundings and the things happening around you influencing your work?
My work with eggs is an attempt to bring joy into the world, something seriously lacking in our modern lives = especially as we are saturated with harsh news available to us from around the world around the clock. I worry that this saturation can overwhelm our delicate inner senses of what is the meaning of being alive on this beautiful planet. I find much inspiration from being in the natural world, as well as the works of artists that have gone before me in their own interpretations of the natural world. For instance, I found great inspiration in the exhibition that MOMA staged two years ago about Matisse’s art derived from cutting and collaging paper. There was such sheer joy in this master’s last body of work, done at a time when he was in pain from intestinal cancer and toward the end of his long career. This show inspired my work in creating mosaics with broken eggshells, allowing me a completely new technique to explore.
I find the world that we know is falling apart, politically, economically, and socially. My work in breaking eggshells for collages and paintings is a reflection and a response to those phenomena. Like my work with eggshell collage, we do not know how things will look in our future, all we know now is that the systems that we knew are breaking down. Often my work reflects my inner landscape, and expresses an emotional reality I am attempting to understand. I find that my art presages movement in my personal life, as though my unconscious erupts in these pieces and becomes coherent (or comprehensible) years later. My desire is to show that while what we experience currently is a breakdown of the known (like an eggshell smashed and epoxied onto a board), the outcome can still be beautiful, though completely changed in the process.
How difficult is it and how long does an egg usually take to be completed ?
The difficulty in creating a single egg depends on the complexity of the design and the technique used in the process. Simple designs on smaller shells (duck or chicken) can be as quick as an hour (time in hand drawing or painting), while there is time spent within a dye bath and the lacquering process. More complex designs on larger shells can take several hours (time in hand) to a few days, again depending on the technique used. For instance, lately I have been creating a series of etched emu shells and the time in hand averages ten hours per piece, which does not include the time in the acid (vinegar) bath.