Elizabeth Vernon’s canvas is calcium.
Vernon is an egg artist who decoupages Victorian designs onto delicate eggshells. Her gleaming varnished creations bear floral motifs, women’s portraits, nursery-rhyme characters, insect images — any vintage design that strikes her fancy.
This time of year, much of her free time is spent snipping paper images, adhering them carefully to eggshells and engaging in the painstaking process of repeatedly coating the eggs with decoupage medium. It’s all in preparation for her one annual showcase: The Elegant Egg, an annual egg show and sale that will be open next weekend at First United Methodist Church near the University of Akron.
The show has been an Easter-season tradition in Akron for about 40 years. It was started in the early 1970s at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens by some members of its Women’s Auxiliary Board who just wanted an opportunity to display the Easter eggs they’d decorated, said Stan Hywet volunteer Jim Urban, who managed the show for about 10 years.
Those women brought in some of their egg-decorator friends, and soon the board recognized the value in selling eggs as well as displaying them. The show and sale was open for a week back then, Urban said, and typically attracted more than 3,000 people.
The show was held for about a quarter-century at Stan Hywet until the historical estate dropped it in 1998, citing reasons that included declining attendance and limited exhibit space.
That’s when a group of egg artists, or “eggers,” banded together to save the show, said Denise DiGeronimo, the group’s treasurer. Under the leadership of the late Gwen Howe, they formed the Ohio Egg Artists Guild and have organized the show ever since.
Over the years, the show has moved among several locations and contracted in length from a week to two days. This year’s show is the first at First United Methodist.
Vernon is one of a dozen or more eggers who will display and sell their artwork at the two-day event. Show director Suzanne Gibson said the artists’ work includes hand-painted eggs; eggs carved in filigree designs, zentangle patterns and other motifs; and eggs decorated with the Ukrainian pysanky wax-and-dye process, some in traditional designs and others unconventionally.
Vernon’s connection to the show goes back to childhood, when visiting the show was an annual tradition. “It was a huge, fun thing to do in Akron,” she said.
The inveterate crafter wanted to be part of the show, so she came up with her own decorating niche in the form of Victorian-theme decoupage. It was a logical choice, given that she sells antiques, collects old paper ephemera and has a passion for Victoriana. A longtime volunteer at the University of Akron’s Victorian house museum, Hower House, she runs its gift shop and was even married there.
The Highland Square resident taught herself the Japanese paper-cutting technique of washi, which she uses to prepare her designs to be adhered to the eggs. The technique involves snipping slits around the perimeter of the design and manipulating the paper so it can be molded to the egg.
Getting the flat image to look right when it’s laid on the egg’s curved surface can be tricky, she said. She has to make adjustments such as overlapping bits of paper without distorting the image.
Once the design is glued in place, the egg is coated with about 10 layers of decoupage medium — a time-consuming process that requires sanding between each coat. Finally the egg is varnished to give it gloss.
Early on she used an oil-based varnish, not realizing the varnish would soak through the layers all the way to the paper. She was disappointed when the varnish created darkened stains and thought the eggs were ruined, but that accident had a happy ending: Eventually the spots evened out, and the eggs developed a yellowish patina that gave them an antique look.
Now, however, she sticks with polyurethane, which doesn’t yellow.
Vernon looks all year for vintage papers to decorate her eggs. She’ll scour shows and shops for picture postcards, children’s book illustrations, Victorian calling cards, old advertisements and other paper items that catch her eye. A number of eggs she decorated for this year’s show are covered in paper designs that are reproductions of 19th century French fabrics.
She photocopies the papers, which allows her to preserve them as well as reduce or enlarge them to fit her eggs. “I wouldn’t destroy the original,” she said.
The eggs she decorates range in size from palm-size goose eggs to tiny pigeon eggs only an inch or so long, which she bought at an estate sale. The pigeon eggs’ shells were so thin that they would collapse when they were wetted with glue, so she discovered she needed to give them two or three coats of shellac before she could start decorating them.
She also decorates quail eggs, chicken eggs, smaller pullet eggs, sometimes jumbo ostrich eggs and maybe peacock eggs — “any eggs I can find,” she said.
Vernon buys her eggs from farmers and prefers eggs from free-range poultry, because their diet results in eggs with thicker shells. She needs eggs that can stand up to the pressure she puts on them when she’s trying to get a paper design to lie flat, she explained.
She blows the centers out of some eggs; others she buys already emptied. Tinier eggs are left intact, so eventually their centers dry out.
Typically she starts work on the eggs around Christmas and keeps working until the egg show, producing 100 to 200 eggs that she’ll offer for sale for about $10 to $40 each. Then she sets the craft aside and moves on to something else.
“By the time you’re done with 100 or 200, it’s pretty much out of your system till next year,” she said with a smile.
Which is her favorite egg?
She couldn’t choose one.
“They’re kind of all my favorites,” she said. “Every year my new favorite is the next picture that excites me.”
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.