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Like the old grey mare, the ancient Australian aboriginal art of carving pictures on emu eggs ain't what it used to be. Today, emus are farmed (and also eaten) in many other countries, and clever artists use modern technology to decorate the eggs.

"Emu egg carving first became popular in the mid to late nineteenth century," says an article on The Australian Museum's comprehensive website. "Both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists practised the art, with some silversmiths designing elaborate and ornate contraptions to hold the eggs.

"During the twentieth century Aboriginal people of south-east Australia and the Carnarvon region of Western Australia kept the practice alive. Carving continues today with dozens of artists depicting important animals, people, traditions and scenes from the past or present."

Ted Fernando, from the Ularoi tribe at Angledool, in western New South Wales, has carved emu eggs for 35 years. He enjoys bringing out the delicate tones found in carving into the layers of the shell. Most of his work features native Australian motifs. He has a website which shows a typical subject, Emus drinking at a billabong (1989). He charges $400 for a commissioned emu egg carving.

A few weeks ago, Sydney artist Suzanne Boccalatte exhibited emu eggs which she had decorated by using a laser engraver. "Look at them, they're beautiful," she told Sydney Morning Herald writer Anthony Dennis, clasping one of the eggs. "They're like a huge avocado. Imagine getting one of these out of you."

In Hampton, Georgia (US), another artist, Stephen Truax, a 58-year-old grandfather, uses a pencil-like dental drill to carve and sculpt emu, ostrich, turkey, goose and rhea eggs. He favours working on emu eggs which, he says, naturally have three coloured layers of black, light green and cream shell.

"Once you get the green, the second layer, you have to be very careful," he told Greg Gelpi, of the Jonesboro News Daily. Each cut into the shell made it more fragile. An emu egg was about 1/32 of an inch thick, while chicken eggs were too thin to carve.

"If it can be drawn in black and white, it can be carved," he said. He decorates eggs with images of roses, faces and dragons. His sparkling eggs are coated with decorative sequins. On another egg he carved concentric oval bands of shell, layered in a geometric pattern.

In Manchester, Ohio, Gail Mercer, a grandmother who calls herself "a happy senior," uses a high-speed air tool to carve emu and goose eggs. First applying a design to the surface of the shell, she then whittles everything else away, to achieve a 3-D effect. She paints or stains some of the eggs, and spends five to six hours working on each one.

"During the shows, we post signs on the tables that say 'real eggs'", she told Connie Bloom, Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal staff writer. "People ask, 'Well, are they porcelain? Are they ceramic?'''

Last year, one of Gail's carved eggs, depicting the shape of the state and some of its flora and fauna, was hung in the Ohio Governor's mansion in Columbus.

And in a farmhouse northeast of Newburg, Pennsylvania, Judy Dietrich produces ornaments designed after the famous Fabergé eggs made by the royal jeweller of Russia's ruling Romanovs.

Her decorated eggs are finely embossed and adorned with gold chains and strings of tiny faux pearls. She says there's a demand for emu eggs because they are green, but she seems to prefer ostrich eggs, because, she said to Debby Heishman, staff writer of Chambersburg Public Opinion, their larger size makes them usable as jewellery boxes.

Judy said her smallest art work was carving a single rose into a parakeet egg, which proved to be extremely difficult. "Never again!" she vowed.

And in Gulf Hills, Mississippi, 86-year-old Valerie Zrinsky, "woodcarver, painter, calligrapher, storyteller," decorates eggshells in many ways. In a story about her in the Biloxi Sun-Herald (Sydney too has a Sun-Herald) Tina Kessinger wrote:

She's made wedding scenes (complete with a tiny hand-carved bride and groom), baby bassinets (including baby), fish, roosters, flowers, fairy tales, coats-of-arms and jewelry boxes.

She fashioned an egg that held a tiny secretary, desk and typewriter. One of her creations featured a three-quarter-inch hand-carved piano and pianist, and she once made an egg in which a grandmother sat in her kitchen with her seven grandchildren. But after making a carved and painted egg creation with a teensy wooden elephant for a University of Alabama football fan, Zrinsky drew the line.

"That was too difficult", she says. "Believe me, I'll never carve another elephant!"

As if designing her eggs, painting watercolors, making illuminated manuscripts and fashioning greeting cards wasn't enough to keep this octogenarian busy, Zrinsky also loves to spend time telling stories to schoolchildren. As a member of the Scottish Society of the Gulf Coast, her passion is to recite Scottish lore, much of it passed down through her family.


While searching the internet for news about emu eggs, we found this intriguing story among Google's archives. As the linked website has now disappeared, we wonder if it was an April Fool spoof.

In 1997, an Australian artist working on Emu egg carving found himself unstoppable. His sex libido dramatically increased. The Emu egg dust he licked from his fingers made him like a teenager again. The aphrodisiac quality of Emu egg dust was further confirmed by a number of male egg handlers in Emu farms.

The Melbourne Courier claims Emu egg dust the "Ultimate Aphrodisiac." The accidental discovery led to scientific investigations by several organisations...

The Emu egg dust... is scientifically refined in the ... laboratory to rid the unwanted and preserve the actives. As a result, ... is a high potent formula, a natural alternative to Viagra but without side effects.




Story first posted May 2004

Copyright © 2004

Eric Shackle

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