Handled With Care
Artist Karen Hils
By Lisa Stephens Rahn • Photography by Brian W. McDonald
It is Easter season. Folks of all ages will soon be dipping hardboiled eggs into color baths, drawing on their surface or coating the shells with stickers or wraps. But for Midland City, Alabama, resident Karen Hils, eggshell embellishment is a year-round pursuit in fine art.
Born in the United Sates and raised in a small Canadian logging town primarily inhabited by Eastern Europeans, Hils got an early introduction to “pysanka,” the tradition of placing religious symbols onto eggshells using the “batik” dyeing method of wax resist. “My friends were Ukrainian, so you learn this by osmosis,” she remarks.
The decorated eggs are sometimes used in ceremonies recognizing weddings, births and burials. “Life, purity, connection with God—I liked that aspect. It was a strong symbol of life,” Hils says.
She started by coloring eggs, then she began to scratch and dig along the surface, first using a Dremel. “That didn’t work well,” Hils remembers. So, she sought the help of Gary LeMaster, who offers online classes in the discipline. “He’s like the master of eggs,” Hils tells. LeMaster educated her on which tools work best and various techniques. Within three to four years of venturing into the art form, Hils was proficient. “I had always been a two-dimensional artist—painting,” she says. “Then, I discovered I really took to carving, and that’s something I never thought I could do.”
While the vibrant hues of Hils’ colored eggs draw you in, it is her ever-fragile sculpted eggs, whittled until only thin threads of shell remain, that demand you to marvel as you search the designs for hidden symbols. Particularly at Easter, portrayals of the Holy Trinity, crosses and church are present. “A lot of my work is symbolic or metaphoric,” Hils tells. “Sometimes I do story eggs—I tell a story through images on the eggs.”
Water, trees, birds and flowers are often featured. “I grew up in the Canadian bush, so I do have an affinity toward nature,” Hils says. “And I get a lot of inspiration from my family.”
Hils selects an ostrich, emu, rhea, goose or chicken egg to act as her tiny canvas, always using real eggs, locally grown when possible. “I like working with the bigger eggs. The bigger eggs have thicker shells,” she notes. Even still, “If you drop it, it’s like glass—it shatters. Gravity takes ... [subscribe to read full article and see more photos]