Sidonka Wadina

Slovak straw artist/egg decorator
Headshot of a woman.

Photo by Michele Kieweg

Bio

As a straw artist, egg decorator, and folk painter, Sidonka Wadina is an artist deeply influenced by her Slovakian roots having been raised in a Slovak neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her grandmother, Johanna Biksadski, told folk tales and stories of Slovakia while teaching Wadina to decorate eggs and weave straw talismans for the annual Holiday Folk Fair, an ethnic festival the family has participated in since 1943. Biksadski told her: "You are the future, it is up to you to pass this along so it will never be lost."

An active member in the Slovak community, Wadina was steeped in ancient customs and traditional living and grew up traveling to schools and colleges with Biksadski, who lectured and gave presentations on Slovak culture while Wadina demonstrated. With guidance from her grandmother, Wadina learned a number of egg decorating styles and  straw weaving patterns. Relatives visiting Slovakia brought back samples of straw work which she took apart in order to learn their construction. As time went on Wadina began to study harvest mythology, visit museums in Slovakia, and recreate the straw talismans that had been lost over time—straw being a transient medium with a limited life expectancy.

Corn straw item

Slovakian Marriage Piece. Photo by Sidney J. Lee
Enlarge

Wadina is deeply committed to teaching and preserving the legacy that has been passed down to her. She is proficient in dozens of straw plaits and egg decorating techniques from villages all over the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Her dedication to teaching has also taken her to Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, and Belarus, where she conducted master classes in straw weaving to ensure that the transmission of this tradition crosses both generations and borders.

Wadina has participated in the Wisconsin Arts Board's Folk Art Apprenticeship Program since the 1990s when she was recognized as a Master Folk Artist. She demonstrated at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the Wisconsin Sesquicentennial, and attends many Midwest folklife festivals. Her straw ornaments have decorated the White House Christmas trees for Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and three of Wisconsin's past governors.

She has demonstrated and exhibited her work at the National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids, the Embassy of the Slovak Republic in Washington DC, and is currently a folk art instructor at the Kenosha Public Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Colorful decorated eggs

Goddess Motif on Goose Eggs. Photo by Sidney J. Lee
Enlarge

In 2007 Sidonka graduated summa cum laude from Gateway Technical College with a degree in Graphic Design Technologies and has written and illustrated a Slovak recipes book published by Penfield Press. In 2011 Sidonka was honored for 55 years of volunteering at the Holiday Folk Fair International and in 2014 was inducted into the fair's Guild of Master Artisans.

Interview with Sidonka Wadina by Josephine Reed for the NEA
September 30, 2015
Edited by Holly Neugass and Liz Auclair

NEA: Your parents moved here in the 1930s?

Sidonka Wadina: My grandmother, with my mother—who was seven years old at the time—was so brave to travel across the ocean in a big boat. And they landed in Ellis Island, and traveled to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to meet my grandfather, not even knowing the language. My father was one of five boys, and he was born here. Two of the oldest were born in Slovakia. And the men came over first, and because they settled in a Slovak neighborhood in the Menomonee River Valley, there was a railroad within walking distance. So most of the men went to work for the railroad.

NEA: And what are your earliest memories of growing up in your house? Did you grandmother live with you?

Wadina: No, she didn’t. She lived down the street. And I remember my mother asking me if I wanted to go see Grandma, and I wanted to walk by myself. So she would stand on the sidewalk and watch me as I walked down to Grandma’s house. And the first thing I did inside was ask if she had any pastries to eat, which she always did. I was interested in that so I started helping with the baking. 

She was decorating eggs and I wanted to be able to do that as well. Because I was too little to work with hot wax and a flame, she would take Elmer’s glue and mix it with food coloring, give me a toothpick, and I would put a dot of the color on an egg and then I would draw a tail and that was actually a drop-pull method of egg decorating.  So I started doing that when I was little.

NEA: Tell me more about the traditional process of dipping the eggshell in hot wax. How does it work?

Wadina: There are several methods of egg decorating. This one is the drop-pull method. And it’s done with a long pin, like a stick pin. There’s a small vessel of hot wax. The pin is dipped into the hot wax as far as it’ll go, and then you transfer that to the egg and touch it. The wax slides down the shaft of the pin and makes a dot on the egg and you draw a tail. So you create your patterns with these little teardrop-shaped strokes. So maybe one village will put the entire pattern on and then dye one color and at the end you melt the wax off and then everything that was under the wax is white. So you have a white pattern on a colored egg. Other villages did a successive dye-bath method. So you’d have to plan which areas would be lighter, which would be medium tone, which would be darker, and at the end melt the wax off. There’s also a [method] where the pattern is drawn on in lines and geometric patterns. There’s a cut-straw method from the Hana region of Slovakia. So you would take straw, soak it, split it, scrape it, iron it, cut it into triangular shapes or strips and apply that to a colored egg with glue. There’s a hand-painted egg. There is the blue onion—the egg is white and the pattern is applied with blue ink. And within methods, like that pin-drop method, there are many styles, because the villages in that area all had their own particular style.

NEA: The patterns that you created, were they something that was just visually pleasing? Did they have a meaning?

Wadina: They had a meaning. And many of the early eggs, when we go back into museums and we look at what’s there, it’s mostly the band around the egg which represents the plowed field. There’s usually little teardrop-shaped strokes that are radiating from that, which are the sprouts. And then there’s sun and rain symbols. So around the top and around the bottom of the egg is an ancient sun symbol, and then you would place little teardrop-shaped strokes below that that would represent raindrops— a wish for a bountiful harvest. And what’s interesting is that in one year, if they had too much sun, then when they would decorate their eggs—and it was always during Holy Week, because the Slovaks didn’t eat any eggs during Lent—those were saved. So during Holy Week the eggs were decorated. And whatever you didn’t have the year before or whatever you wished for, then that would be represented on the egg. So you can go in a museum and you can look at an egg and you can, if you can see what date it was created, you can figure out what the weather was the year before that.

NEA: And then what would they do with the eggs? Would they give them away? Would they keep them for the year?

Wadina: Well, some of the eggs were given as gifts, and then some were for egg trees done by the peasants. Mostly it was the women and the daughters and granddaughters that decorated eggs. It was something that was passed down. But they had egg trees and there were customs and traditions that developed from the custom of decorating eggs. And eggs in the beginning were mostly red, because that was the color of royalty. It was such a rich color that most of the early eggs were red.

NEA: And did you take to it right away?

Wadina: Well, I practiced with that glue, the colored glue, for a long time. And I couldn’t wait to be able to actually do it with hot wax. Grandma had me practice how to paint flowers on eggs. I had to develop and get to a point where I wasn’t going to lean over the candle and set my hair on fire. You have to be careful when you’re working with a hot flame and hot wax.

NEA: What would your grandmother do with the eggs?

Wadina: Grandma missed Slovakia so much and she was always promoting Slovakian culture. She exhibited at the old gas company in Milwaukee about three or four years before the Holiday Folk Fair actually began. She was friends with a Polish lady that also came over, and the Polish lady said, “Wow. This was a wonderful display. I wonder if the Polish could do something like this.” And then it was a Ukrainian lady that said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could put on a display like this too?” And the International Institute ended up beginning the Holiday Folk Fair International, and Grandma was there from the beginning.

I would do eggs every year with her and we would sell eggs at the Holiday Folk Fair. And she always had all these wonderful stories to tell because peasants were really superstitious. And because they didn’t read or write, the messages that were on eggs were conveyed by the symbols that were on the egg.  Fish were to symbolize getting out of difficult situations.  Because you know how fish can swim real quick away. So young men usually had eggs with fish designs on them.  And young women had flowers mostly. And some of the early designs actually had goddess figures on them, because one of the oldest woman’s symbols is the triangle and it symbolizes the woman in her three phases of life: the virgin, begging or invoking for sun and rain; the mother, ripe; and then the crone stage, where that energy and all that knowledge and power is passed on. It’s difficult to actually find some of those that still exist, because that was so long ago.  And when Christianity came to Slovakia in 1862, that culture had to be wiped out in women. They didn’t want to lose those symbols, so what happened is they became more abstract so they weren’t recognizable by the church. And that way they could continue with the symbols but not under the watchful eye of the church. They could still transfer those messages of fertility and wishes for a bountiful harvest, and they could pass those on without having them so easily noticed. When those symbols had to change from the goddess figures into something that wasn’t recognizable by the church, what happened is it actually created an evolution in embroidery patterns. Because before that, the goddess figures were easily recognizable. But after that, they evolved into floral patterns, and sort of talismans. So it’s pretty interesting.

NEA: Now, when did you start weaving? Were you that young as well?

Wadina: Whenever an important person who’s Polish or Slovak, Eastern European, came to Milwaukee, everybody in our family dressed up in folk dresses. And Grandma and I would create these pieces that would be for display for weddings and for harvest celebrations, because the harvest was one of the most important times of the year. That’s when you have the most food, so that’s when most of the weddings took place, because there was enough food for everyone. So we would make these crowns that looked like large crowns that you would set on the banquet table and you’d put fruit and vegetables in them. And instead of carrying bouquets of flowers, we had long sticks that you would tie heads of wheat to and then you would attach flowers and then more heads of oats or rye and the whole stick was covered with flowers and grain. And we would carry those. I have pictures from 1955 of a ceremony. I believe it was a wedding that we participated in at that time. It’s amazing.

NEA: I’m so curious about the straw and just the process of that. You used different kinds of straw for different patterns?

Wadina: My grandparents took me to Slovakia when I was about 15. We were visiting relatives for the entire summer. And we were getting ready to leave from Moravia and go back to Slovakia and my cousin Vlasta came to the train station. The train started moving and I was at the window saying, “Goodbye, Vlasta.” And she reached up and handed me this spiral lantern. It was maybe ten inches long and quite large. And it was spiraled up and it started out wide and got thinner at the top. It was all made of wheat straw. First of all I took it and I said, “Thank you.” I sat down and I looked at it and I said, “Grandma, this is so beautiful. I wish I could make something like this.” And she said, “Sidonka, those are made to wish on. Whatever you wish for, you’re going to keep getting more and more of.” And little did I know that that would be the beginning of a lifelong fascination with straw, and a wish came true for me. And look what happened. Look, after all these years, where I ended up. It’s amazing.

Because hearts are the symbol of Slovakia, we made a lot of hearts. And when we went to the Folk Fair and we brought out our straw weavings, in those days, nobody did any straw weaving. I never saw any in the United States. So I wanted to learn more. Whenever anyone went over, they brought pieces back. And the only way to figure out how to do that spiral lantern was to take it apart and figure out how to do it. The problem that particular year was that we had used a lot of oat straw, and I tried making a spiral lantern from oat straw and I just couldn’t get it to look very good. The folds weren’t as nice as my cousin Vlasta’s. And I cried and said, “I wish I could make one like hers.” And Grandma said, “You have to keep practicing.” That next summer, we went to the state fair and we went into the agricultural building. I grew up in the city, and I knew what oats and wheat looked like, but I’d never seen rye or barley. So I was standing there looking at the bundles and they had blue ribbons on them and I said, “Grandma, I wonder what it would be like to weave with wheat straw.” Her eyes kind of darted around and she looked at me and she said, “Oh, yeah.  That’s what we used to weave with, wheat straw.” And I said, “Wheat straw? You’re kidding. And I practiced for a whole year with oat, and they looked so terrible.” And I said, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” She said, “Because you needed the practice.” And I said, “No, I didn’t. No, I didn’t. I practiced enough.” There was a farmer there listening and when I started getting a little upset he made his way over to see what was going on and he took his bundle off the wall. He said, “This is the wheat that I grew in my field,” with a blue ribbon. He took the blue ribbon off and he said, “Here. Take this and go make your straw weavings.” So we took it.

People came down to the Folk Fair just to talk to Grandma, because she had all these wonderful stories, and I was so fascinated with them. I remember them, and some of them I’d even embellish. So people would come down and say, “Oh, I have a straw weaving that somebody in our family gave us.” And I’d say, “You do? Can you take a picture of it or bring it down or something like that, so I could see it?” And one year this lady came and she said, “Oh, straw weaving. I’ve never seen anyone do this.” She said, “I have a bundle of straw that was on my husband’s funeral casket, and I’m wondering if you could make some things like this for my children.” And I said, “Sure.” So she came back the next day with this bundle of straw and she said, “You know, a long time ago, my husband, he had this beautiful little straw weaving that this young girl gave him and it’s been his treasure all these years. And,” she said, “I brought it with me so I could show it to you. I want to see if you can make one like this.” And she took it out and it was the straw weaving that I had made. I said, “I made this.” And she said, “You made it?” And I said, “Yes. I remember your husband took it off the wall,” and I told her the story. And I thought, “I’ve got to give something back to this family.” So I made house blessings for each of her six children. I made spirals for each one. I made a love token for each one, and I made a heart for each one.

I weave with all vintage straw now, and there’s only a handful of people in the United States that grow vintage straw. It comes in a bundle out of the field. You soak it, you split it, and you scrape the pith off if you’re going to do cut straw goose eggs. If you’re going to weave, you clean, size, and grate it. You cut at the joint, slide the leaf shaft off, size and grade all the straws, and then you tie the amount of straws together for whatever you want to make. I had my daughters cleaning for me. That was what they did all summer to earn extra money. So it takes a long time just to prepare the straw. And the consistency for different areas of the straw is different. Like, the outer portion sometimes doesn’t get enough water, so maybe it has more pith in it. And it might be stiffer. So really the straw determines what you’re going to do with it. You don’t sit down and say, “Well, I’m going to make a bunch of spirals today,” because you don’t know what the consistency of the straw’s going to be.

NEA: So you let the straw almost dictate the pattern.

Wadina: Yeah. So I was explaining this to [an enthnographer] and she said, “It’s so time-consuming. How can you even recover your time?” And I said, “When you wish on a spiral weaving, you can only wish for something that money can’t buy. And I wished that I could make straw weavings. And look what’s happened to me. But when I do festivals like this, there are some amazing things that happen.” Because when immigrants came to the United States, they wanted to be Americanized and a lot of them changed their names because they were discriminated against. And others, like my family, they kept the traditions alive. And what I try to do is reconnect people with their lost heritage. And I said, “See? This is what I’m talking about. This is what happens.” And later on that day a lady came up and said, “How many of those have you made?” I said, “Hundreds.” And she said, “Hundreds? You must be the most blessed person in the whole world.” And I said, “Well, why would you say that?” She said, “Because all of those hundreds of pieces have gone out to people and they’re hanging in their homes, around their trees. And every time they look at those pieces they think of you. And all that positive energy is coming back to you. Don’t you feel blessed?” And I said, “Well, I certainly do now.”

NEA: So you did it when you were growing up and then you got married, you had kids, you were a stay-at-home mom. Were you continuing to weave?

Wadina: I was. When I got married, my husband and I were stationed in Alaska. And I actually made things in Alaska and I shipped them down to Milwaukee to be sold at the Holiday Folk Fair.

NEA: Was it hard to get the straw up in Alaska?

Wadina: I had my mom ship some things to me. It was really difficult to get straw up there. So what I ended up doing was more egg-decorating at that time. And I shipped those down for the Holiday Folk Fair.

Goose eggs have the thickest shells. Eggs that are fertilized have a much thicker shell than unfertilized eggs. Eggs that are sold in stores, those come from egg places where the chickens are just laying eggs one after another and the shells are kind of thin. So I usually use farm eggs. And when I started decorating eggs, my girls were young and they wanted to decorate eggs too. So I taught them. I think they were around maybe ten and 13, something like that, when it was the first time that they actually put their eggs in the same basket with mine because they didn’t think theirs were done well enough. So I was in the kitchen and my eldest daughter, Stephanie, said, “Mom, come in the dining room. We want to show you something.” So I went in the dining room and there was a basket of eggs. And I said, “Oh, you put all the eggs in a basket.” And she said, “Which ones did you do and which ones did we do?” And I looked at them and I said, “I don’t know.” And they both smiled and they thought, “Well, now we’ve arrived.”

NEA: How do you go about teaching weaving or egg decorating? Because you’re teaching an art, but you’re also teaching a history at the same time.

Wadina: When I go to teach a class, I provide written instructions and patterns for them to follow. And it’s usually dividing the egg up into maybe a front and back egg or a top and bottom egg or divided into eight sections and then decorating each section. So I have patterns that I’ve developed. I went back to school in 2003 to get a degree in graphic design technology so that I could illustrate some of my patterns. And I like to do research on the old embroidery patterns, because you can find your goddess figures in those. I go to an International Straw Festival every two or three years. I’ve taught at the second, third, and I think fourth International Straw Festivals in Europe. The second one was in Minsk and the third one was in Minsk. And between the second and third, I went back to Minsk and I taught master classes and I took a huge suitcase filled with black-bearded durum wheat, because they’ve never seen anything like that. It was a variety that actually was brought over here from Italy and they make pasta out of it. There’s a gentleman who lives in Turtle Lake, North Dakota, and he is the only one in the United States who grows that for sale. He was growing it and someone stopped and said, “Can I cut some of that? I’m a straw weaver.” And his wife said, “You’re a what?” “I weave straw.” And she said, “Well, can you teach me?” And they started growing this black-bearded durum wheat, which the house blessings are made out of, because it’s sturdier, tougher wheat. And the pieces last forever and there’s no fallout, because it’s harvested under ripe, which is at the dough stage. So a kernel in the head of the wheat is the consistency of dough and that’s when it’s cut. It’s like drying a rose when it’s still in the bud and not fully in bloom. So everything stays intact.

So I took that over and I laid a dozen weavings out on the table, because they mostly did certain plaits that were very popular in the straw hat industry in Switzerland. So they saw straw hats and they figured out how to do the rustic or Tyrolean plait and spiral weaving. But they hadn’t seen some of those other plaits. So I said, “What would you like me to teach?” And they said, “Everything.” I said, “I can’t teach everything.” So I taught for two weeks up there and I had over 40 women. It was amazing.

NEA: What does it mean for you to get a National Heritage Award?

Wadina: Well, a long time ago I wished that I could just make simple little spiral weavings. And I never realized that something that I loved so much, that I was so passionate about, was actually going to bring me here. I’m the first Slovak to be honored in this way. Both of my grandmothers were Slovak and both of them were artists. All their lives, they promoted Slovakian culture everywhere they could, but they never received an honor like this. So for me to get this honor means a lot to me. Without them, I wouldn’t be here.