Maya Hayuk's Good Vibes: Some Thoughts on Giving, in Three Parts
By Corrina Peipon
I. The Gifted
When Maya comes to visit, she usually leaves a drawing as a farewell note. On one occasion, she left a pencil drawing of a huge letter "Y". The trunk of the letter is a smaller letter "E", the shared concluding letter of the words "vice" and "virtue", which make the two branches of the "Y". Drawn in a style akin to old-fashioned typewriter letters, the tops of each branch of the "Y" are complicated by the fact that they are made from the introductory "V"s required to spell "vice" and "virtue". My use of the descriptors "trunk" and "branches" are not careless here; it is so (I have read) that the letterform we know as "Y" is a simplified image of a tree. Maya had asked me about the significance of the letter, because I have a "Y" tattooed on my right arm. I told her that the "Y" is a symbol of the tree of life, its two upward-reaching "branches" connoting the paths of vice and virtue.
The tree is used in many cultures as a symbol of life and knowledge, but it was the Shakers who came to mind when I saw Maya's drawing. Some Shakers–primarily women–recorded their experiences of spiritual transcendence–gifts, as they were known–in drawings, often accompanied by writing. Sometimes, images were made from these accounts (the lines of writing forming the petals of a flower, for instance) or writing was used in a decorative fashion within an overall composition. The tree of life is a recurring theme in the drawings, which were meant, within a culture that forbade art in its doctrine of simple life, as a gift from the gifted, revealing the spirit to those less sensitive to its mystery.
II. The Gift
Pysanky are elaborately patterned, brightly colored eggs that are often given as gifts and displayed at Easter, though they are derived from a craft tradition that pre-dates the arrival of Christianity in Ukraine. The beautifully delicate and mysterious pysanky are usually made with hollowed-out eggs. The pysanka artist uses a stylus dipped in hot wax to draw patterns or block out larger fields on the surface of the egg. The egg is then placed in a dye bath or ink is painted onto the surface. The areas that are not covered in wax will take the dye. When the wax is removed, the natural white surface or colored areas of the egg are left as the lines and grounds of the pattern. This technique can be manipulated to achieve more or less complicated compositions across the surface of the egg shell, incorporating one or many colors.
The word pysanka is derived from the Ukrainian verb pysaty which means "to write". All of the colors and designs on pysanky have symbolic significance. The egg itself represents life and the eternal cycle of creation. The colors have associations that cross cultures: white suggests purity and birth; purple stands for patience and power; yellow represents happiness and wisdom; green embodies youth and renewal; red signifies beauty and passion; orange is strength and brown is earth, while blue stands for the sky and good health. Black is often used in the designs to counterbalance the colors and to represent remembrance and eternity. In many pysanky, the symbols are drawn in elaborate patterns that repeat a stylized or graphic representation of nature, often linked together in rows forming rings around the egg. A poetic example can be found in the form of the spider, which symbolizes patience, artistry, and industry. Wheat is meant to bring wishes for a bountiful harvest, butterflies represent the pleasure of childhood, and trees stand for strength, growth, and eternal life. Geometric shapes also have metaphysical significance in the stories told through pysanky. Circles represent continuity and wholeness, the three sides of a triangle stand for the natural elements of air, fire, and water, curls are talismans for protection, and spirals denote the mystery of life and death.
All languages have secrets, and the writings inscribed in pysanka carry the secret wishes and dreams of the artists and of those who were meant to receive pysanky as gifts through the ages. Among Ukrainians, there is a belief that the fate of the world depends upon pysanky. As long as the tradition is carried on, the world will exist. This creation in perpetuity is thought to maintain the triumph of love over evil, and thus the writing of symbols keeps the world alive and safe and filled with love.
As far as I know, Maya doesn't make pysanky, but she is Ukrainian. It's kind of nice to read the above paragraph again, substituting the words "pysanka" and "pysanky" with "Maya's work", and then you'll know what I am trying to get at in this section.
III. The Giving
Jay Defeo is mostly known for her paintings, especially The Rose, which she completed in 1966. The Rose took eight years to make; it is monumental for its gestation as well as for its size–at its deepest, the surface measures eleven inches. The composition is generally symmetrical; rays burst out from a central point to the limits of the canvas. Like Maya, Defeo was also an avid photographer, recording natural phenomena as well as man-made ephemera, and she often made experiments in her darkroom, layering negatives to an elegant and often mildly psychedelic effect. Living in San Francisco, Defeo was close with artists and poets like Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, and Michael McClure. The subculture formed by this circle of friends related to the Beat poetry scene that also thrived in the Bay Area and shared the same lust for bucking up against conventions, readily experimenting with drugs, and bringing sexual and psychological–often hallucinatory and mystical–content into the work. Berman was a central figure through his work in photography, sculpture, and collage and his publication Semina. As a close friend of Berman, Defeo was a sometime subject for his photographs. Before The Rose was hauled through the window of her studio (it wouldn't fit through the doors, so it had to be lowered onto the sidewalk with a system of pullies), Berman photographed Defeo in front of the painting, nude, laughing, his signature Aleph figure superimposed over her heart–triumphant, her arms are flung upward and outward, encompassing the world.
Not that long ago, Maya and I sat on my sofa drinking tea and eating chocolate while she showed me the photographs of her recent wall painting in progress. Watching the painting get built, I had difficulty reconciling the the fact that the painter was also the photographer, and I thought about the primary image and its documentary manifestation while Maya talked about the people she met and the bicycle she rode through Koln. It was kind of like watching stop-motion animation, and in this instance the subject of the film was an enormous, acid-colored explosion of energy emerging from the center of a wall. We looked at two images of the completed work, one in ordinary light and one bathed in the black light from the lamps she installed on the sides of the mural. The third image of the completed painting included Maya herself. No longer behind the camera documenting the process, she stands at the mid-point of the painting, its radiating gestures emanating outward from her solar plexus, from her chakras, from all kinds of ancient-new age parts of her body. Her head is slightly flung back. Her eyes are averted from the camera, and a little grin animates her face–triumphant, her arms are flung upward and outward, encompassing the world.