From Moscow to Mt. Lebanon

Sasha Phillips helps a student with his pysanky egg.
Sasha Phillips talks with student Stephen Mahoney during a class she was teaching at the Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church in Carnegie on techniques in pysanky—decorating Easter eggs in the Ukrainian style. Phillips’ father was from Ukraine and mother was from Russia, shows a handful of her Ukrainian eggs that she has painted.

Speaking in a soft, modulated voice, Sasha Phillips puts people at ease before teaching a class in pysanky, (Pih-SAN-Kee) the art of decorating and dying eggs in vivid colors and breathtakingly intricate patterns.

The attorney and Duquesne Drive resident grew up in Moscow where she learned this cultural tradition in her native Russia. People in many Slavic countries, including Ukraine, Poland, Serbia and Bulgaria, also make pysanky.

“My Russian grandmother taught me pysanky”, Phillips said, recalling that in the Russia of her youth, “Easter was not allowed. Christmas presents were given on New Year’s. The Soviet Union prohibited the exercise of religion then.”

The creative gene is dominant in Phillips’ family. Her great uncle, Gregorio Sciltian, was an artist at the Vatican in Rome. Her grandfather was a doctor who painted daily and her mother, an architect, paints watercolors.

Also, Phillips received formal art training. At age 17, in 1993, she began studying at Shepherd University on a full scholarship, earning a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and painting in 1997 from the school in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. “I was their first international student,” she recalled.

So, Phillips is quite comfortable teaching pysanky to adults and energetic children at Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Church in Carnegie or to women gathered at a table in Yelena Lamm’s sunny art studio in Highland Park. And, she’s an evangelist for the practice of pysanky.

“It allows children to spend time with their parents. It’s very tactile. It gives the community a chance to heal. It also allows newcomers to integrate into a new community,” Phillips said.

A recent newcomer to the local circle of pysanky artists is Oleksandra “Sasha” Pasichnyk, an art teacher who specializes in drawing and painting. A refugee from just outside Kyiv, Pasichnyk fled Ukraine earlier this year. Pasicknyk, her husband and son came to the U.S. through the United for Ukraine program and are staying with a friend in the Westmoreland County town of Jeannette.

“Everything here is different,” Pasichnyk said, adding that, “I am very proud that the Ukrainian tradition [of pysanky] is carried on here in America.” Her 8-year-old son, Andrew, likes to use acrylic paint and stickers when he does pysanky.

Since 2010, Phillips has taught pysanky, a 4,000-year-old rite of spring. After a candle is lit, participants pick up their kistka, a wooden instrument similar to a pencil with a copper tip. After heating the copper tip in a flame, students dip it into black wax and use it to draw a design on the egg.

That’s the start of a three-step process that entails decorating the egg with birds, stalks of wheat or stars, to name three of many popular symbols. Pysanky can be a gift of good wishes to a bridal couple or used to decorate a Christmas or Easter tree.

The peace and quiet that fills a room full of pysanky students is the perfect antidote to daily stress. Phillips knows how effective this exercise is because she has used art as a tool to teach wellness to attorneys.

“A regular art practice promotes resilience and wellness,” she said, adding that during her 10 years working at the Reed Smith law firm, she designed a pilot program for teaching art to lawyers. She also hosted a workshop in Pittsburgh’s federal court with U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Bissoon on “intellectual property for the soul.” For her commitment to using art as a tool of wellness, the Oil Painters of America (OPA) honored her in 2021 with its very first Have a HeArt Humanitarian Award, given to OPA members who have used their artistic talent “to enrich the lives of others through hands-on or charitable work.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, Phillips worked out of the Reed Smith law firm office in Washington, D.C. But when offices shut down, she suddenly found herself at home with four children, four cats and one husband: Edward Phillips, a musician turned attorney.

“We did a lot of art projects during the pandemic,” she said, including a pop-up art show on the family’s lawn.

Tall, personable and fashionably dressed, Phillips also pairs art with activism.

This spring, she organized an exhibition at the Energy Innovation Center, Uptown, with more than 80 artists participating.

The Make a Marc group art show highlighted the plight of Butler County native Marc Fogel, a teacher who was sentenced to 14 years in a Russian prison last June. Fogel had undergone spinal surgery and had a doctor’s prescription for medical marijuana, which was the cause of his arrest and incarceration.

The Make a Marc art show will travel and open on July 8 in Washington, D.C. As Fogel’s attorney, Phillips will talk with western Pennsylvania legislators about the importance of having him declared as a person who is being unlawfully detained by Russian authorities.

Now a full-time lawyer at Dentons Cohen & Grigsby, Phillips has lived in Pittsburgh since coming here in 2007 to study law at the University of Pittsburgh. In May, she earned a master’s degree in psychology from Harvard, a degree she began pursuing in an online program during the pandemic.

Phillips will continue to teach pysanky, she said, adding that her classes fill up now even before she posts notices of them on social media.

Photography by John Schisler