DOVER, Del. — It starts with the simplest of things.
An egg, usually a chicken egg, is the beginning of Japanese “washi” egg art. The contents of the egg are blown out, leaving the empty shell behind.
That delicate shell is then wrapped in Japanese rice paper in a time-consuming and intricate process which turns that most fragile of foodstuffs into a work of art.
Once finished, the washi eggs (“washi” simply means “rice paper” in Japanese) are surprisingly durable creations. They can be used as Christmas ornaments, decorations, gifts or even jewelry.
Brigid McCrea, an assistant professor at Delaware State University, has been fascinated with the Oriental art for years.
“You have a story in an egg. No two eggs are the same,” she said. “You never have the same story twice.”
In 2008, McCrea took a position at Delaware State University as an extension poultry specialist and assistant professor. She works with small- and medium-sized poultry owners in the region and specializes in niche market poultry management.
She just finished organizing the annual “Cooptastic” session held March 2, a day-long session in Harrington, Del., featuring seminars, vendors, an Avian Bowl academic challenge and virtually everything else poultry.
She has also co-authored “The Chicken Whisperer’s Guide to Keeping Chickens.”
McCrea became interested in washi eggs in her native California when Japanese festivals like the Haru Matsuri sparked her interest in the art.
“The eggs intrigued me because I had chickens,” she said.
With Easter quickly approaching, the art of designing washi eggs is in season. Quail or goose eggs can be used, although a chicken egg is the most common base. Once the egg is reduced to an empty shell, and washed and dried, it is ready to be wrapped.
McCrea first makes sure the egg is smooth. Small imperfections or bumps are carefully sanded down.
She then measures the widest part of the egg as well as the length of the eggs. That allows her to determine how much paper will be needed to wrap the egg.
While origami or even wrapping paper can be used, they are not as forgiving as rice paper. Other paper can be thin and easily torn, so McCrea prefers the rice paper, which comes in a nearly endless variety of delicate colors, patterns and designs.
Once the paper is cut, she folds it in half lengthwise and glues it to the egg shell. Thinned down, Elmer’s glue will work just fine. A series of quarter-inch cuts in the paper are made and then trimmed to resemble a picket fence at the ends.
When it’s done right, the ends meet nearly perfectly as the egg is wrapped. You then allow the egg to dry overnight.
“The whole time you are trying not to crush the egg shell,” she laughed.
The finished egg is then coated with sealer to help it harden.
“You can drop them and they will bounce,” she said. “It sounds simple, but the devil is in the details. It is deceptively simple,” McCrea said. “I have done in more than one eggshell in my life.”
“What I enjoy most is the paper and how beautiful it is. My goal someday is to have enough eggs done to do a Christmas tree,” she said.
The appearance of the pattern and design tend to change depending upon how the light strikes the egg.
“When the light hits it, it is gorgeous,” she said.
She charges about $14 for a typical egg, although a goose or quail egg will cost more, perhaps $20.
Despite the delicacy of the work, McCrea said it is an affordable hobby that anyone can learn.
“When you are a poor college student, you blow out the contents, eat them, and then give the shells as gifts,” she laughed.
There are always some eggs that don’t survive the learning process, but she encourages others to learn the art form.
“If I can do it, then anyone can do it,” she said.