Decorated eggs aren’t just for Easter.
That was the message Donna Thomas and Julia Smith got across as they set out their “eggery” one early spring morning. They were preparing not for the holiday, but for the 13th annual Rockford Egg Show and Sale last month, which featured the works of eggshell artists from eight states, including California and Oklahoma. This year’s show was held at the Midway Village Museum in Rockford, Ill.
“We always hold it on the third weekend of March, which is close to Easter, but this is a year-round passion for us, as well as a business,” Smith said.
There were painted eggshells, carved eggshells, engraved eggshells and decoupaged eggshells decked out with rhinestones and fitted with doors that swing open and shut on gold-plated hinges. Some of the eggs took months to make and can fetch prices upward of $750.
Most were far too ornate and delicate to entrust to a hopping rabbit or an egg-hunting 7-year-old, and many were so large that they would have given the poor bunny a hernia, anyway. The ostrich, emu and rhea eggs, in particular, suggest larger, more ponderous beasts.
Maybe there’s an Easter Mastodon who galumphs across the nighttime fields of the Midwest each spring.
Thomas, 51, a commercial artist who has been painting nature scenes in acrylic on eggshells for four years, doesn’t feature mastodons on her eggs, but some of her more recent creations show wooly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers and other Pleistocene fauna.
“I got interested in Ice Age Illinois when I did a mural for the farm where my father-in-law discovered mammoth remains,” she explained. “So now I put prehistoric animals on some of my eggs.”
The biggest eggs Thomas paints, from ostriches and emus, can hold a whole landscape. The goose and turkey eggs might feature only a single deer or leopard. And the smallest, from finches, will have only a portrait of one of the tiny birds themselves.
The finch eggs are smaller than pinto beans, and Thomas has to use special brushes with only one or two bristles to paint them. Because of their fragility, she displays and sells them only under protective glass domes.
“I broke one once by touching it with a piece of tissue paper,” she said.
“But you can take one of the ostrich or emu eggs and drop it on the floor safely — as long as you’ve got carpeting,” said her husband, Steve, 56, a construction contractor and woodworker who has recently taken to painting cartoon characters on chicken eggshells.
Painstakingly carvedSmith, who is in her 60s, hates to paint, but she’ll do almost anything else imaginable with an eggshell. She prefers rhea eggs because their shells are white and do not require pre-painting like the dark-shelled emu eggs do.
A lot of Smith’s eggs are painstakingly carved.
“I’ve got an ultra-high-speed engraver that gets about 400,000 rpm — about 10 times faster than a dentist’s drill — and you can do anything with that,” she said.
Some of Smith’s rhea eggs are shown laying on their sides. For one, she has carved out a pattern of arching trees, with the foliage suggested in low relief. You look inside between the trees, and there’s a plastic swan swimming in an epoxy pond.
One of her few ostrich eggs is not for sale, since it’s a celebration of her marriage.
“My husband of nearly 40 years passed away five years ago and I planned this one for two years,” she said.
You open the door of the ornately decorated egg and you see that it’s lined with silk from Smith’s wedding dress. A swiveling picture frame containing several wedding pictures hangs down from the top of the egg like a chandelier. And there’s a lower level, too. You lift the trapdoor and you find a jeweled and hinged goose egg. It contains the couple’s wedding rings.
“I’ve been doing eggs for 27 years,”’ Smith said. “We used to have a dairy farm, and my kids raised geese one year for 4H. Then they moved on to livestock and left me holding the bag with the poultry. I had all these goose eggs and didn’t know what to do with them, but then I ran into a woman who did eggery and she suggested I try it myself.
“I’ve probably done 5,000 eggs since then.”
In preparation for the show, Smith prepared a pamphlet discussing the egg in mythology, folklore and art. It mentioned the famed eggs created for the Russian imperial court by the jewelry studio of Peter Carl Faberge, but Smith noted that the Faberge eggs were made of precious metals rather than actual eggshells, so they really don’t count as eggery.