Santa Rosa artist has created thousands of uniquely decorated wooden eggs

Shari Kadar calls it “my obsession.”

Four years ago, she picked up a wooden egg and started drawing. It was as if she was driven by a compulsion from deep inside and long ago. With fine felt-tipped pens, the Santa Rosa artist decorated the plain brown egg with a folk motif from her native Hungary. When it was finished she started another. And another. And another.

It has been four years since Kadar woke up that night, sleepless from an attack of sciatica, and spotted two wooden eggs and started drawing as a distraction. Now, her graceful, art-filled home is awash in eggs - more than 2,000 and counting, each with a singular intricate design.

“I cannot do the same thing twice. I have tried,” said the professionally trained fine artist, slender and still elegant at 89 with high cheekbones and downy hair.

Hundreds are arrayed on the wall of her dining room. Yet more eggs are laid out in neat rows on wooden thread holders lying on a table. Eggs poke out of woven baskets. Lovely eggs, tiny works of art, everywhere.

Kadar’s paintings and sculptures and even some pottery fill her home. But these simple painted eggs have become her signature work late in life.

“I’m half blind,” she says. “This is what I can do. I can get up close, and I can choose wonderful colors. I just go to the art store, and they know me there. The egg lady is coming.”

Why eggs?

Kadar sits in a chair by a tall picture window that frames the trees outside and brings in the light, and she goes to work, first drawing the design in black and then filling in with color. When she’s done painting, she polishes each egg with Johnson’s Wax until it is smooth and slightly shiny.

She has never sold a single one, preferring to give them away or to simply keep them for her growing collection.

“Why eggs? I know for sure they come from my memories, from that isolated little village where I was born so long ago,” Kadar explains. “Every spring at Easter, the women of my village decorated dozens of hard-boiled eggs with simple designs reflecting their tastes and their surroundings.”

Children would play with the eggs and trade them and then devour them.

“We would roll them on the floor,” Kadar says. “If yours hit somebody else’s, theirs became yours. It was a big deal in the spring.”

The ground underfoot in the village, Kazsok, near the Austrian border, would become crunchy with shards of eggshells. As the Presbyterian minister in town, her father was a VIP, and parishioners would bring him eggs near Easter, colored naturally with brown and purple onion skins and decorated with candle wax.

“Every village did it. They waited for something interesting to do,” Kadar said, dryly.

“There was no radio. We were the only ones with a radio in the village. They needed batteries this size,” she said, drawing a space in the air the size of a small car engine. “On Sundays, my father put his radio in the window and there was music and people came to the fence to listen. Ah, the radio.”

She tilts her head, as if hearing the tinny sounds of a symphony magically coming from a box more than 70 years ago.

After Kadar painted her first eggs, her husband, Frank Kerscso, declared them “lovely” and bought her 25 more wooden eggs, then 50 and then 100. She cannot stop painting, leaves and berries, swirly shapes.

The eggs have no religious connotation in her mind, but rather remind her of the simple pleasures of childhood when a colored egg could be an object of so much fun.

From childhood

Perhaps her most precious egg is one she saved from childhood, an uneven brown decorated with the images of a rake and a poppy and bearing the name of the village, Kazsok. She keeps it preserved as an heirloom in a clear container.

If painted eggs stir happy memories, some of Kadar’s sculptures have darker associations. “The Refugees” are rows of primitive, only vaguely human shapes, pushing against one another in an upward direction. The piece was featured in an exhibit in Budapest.

“It is a political statement, that the blind lead the ones who cannot see,” she explains.

Kadar was a refugee herself, fleeing Soviet-occupied Hungary after World War II. She was only 20 and a newlywed when her then-husband, Geza Kadar, was arrested by the secret police as a political conspirator and imprisoned for close to a year. He was a diplomat in the foreign office who had been part of the Communist resistance during the war.

She tells a harrowing story of their escape. After his release, Geza concocted a story and papers to attend a fake student conference that would get them in the border area, off-limits to travel at the time.

They arranged for a smuggler to lead them over into Austria, a friend of Kadar’s brother named Roger whose father worked with the border patrol. They were taken in a horse-drawn sleigh laden with hay to a house near the border, where they were locked in a washroom until early evening.

Their smuggler said their money would be worthless in Vienna and recommended they trade theirs for bacon.

“We were told the Viennese were so hungry we could sell it without any problem,” Kadar said.

They set out on foot with heavy bacon in Geza’s backpack, in fog so thick that even Roger got lost. Disoriented and unsure of where they were, they began to see haystacks in the dawn light but didn’t know if they were still in Hungary or safely in Austria.

Roger ventured forth and said he would whistle a certain note if it were safe for them to follow.

“He whistled, and we were in Austria,” she said.

“By that time you don’t feel,” she said of the harrowing crossing. “You have to go. It’s not a future there. So you are brave when life is unbearable.”

Kadar’s husband had papers, but she had none, so they were unable to book a room in the Russian occupied zone of Vienna. One hotel owner took pity and put them up in a boiler room.

“It was lovely and warm,” she said. “I ate icicles off the windowsill because there was nothing to eat.”

With the help of two American soldiers, they were able to escape into the safer American zone. Then with false papers, they hopped on a train posing as Austrian brother and sister, eventually making their way to Switzerland, where Geza was a guest of the Swiss ambassador.

They lived there two years waiting for permission to immigrate to America. Their son, Geza Jr., was born there. He is now a retired attorney and health systems consultant who lives just up the road.

Told it would take five years, the family instead accepted an invitation by the government of Australia to move to Melbourne, where Geza worked as a hospital orderly and earned a teaching credential. The couple had two more children, Bence and Kathy.

Arrival in California

In 1958, they finally got word that their application to move to the United States was approved. They arrived in California, where Geza got a job teaching in Napa and later joined the faculty in the language department of Napa College.

Kadar worked for years as a physical education teacher, while nurturing an interest in art, both painting and later sculpture. She became so driven she enrolled at 60 into the California College of the Arts in Oakland.

“I started from the beginning. Finally, I was where I wanted to be. I put my soul, my whole life into these sculptures,” she says. “I quit my job and started to chisel.”

Her first piece she called “My Little Sister,” depicting the little sister with braids she left behind in Hungary. When her husband decided to move back to Hungary following the collapse of communism in 1990, to serve as a language-training specialist, Kadar remained in Napa to pursue her late-life career. She became a respected artist there, with exhibitions, commissions and several public art pieces.

While she has explored more joyous themes such as “Kiss” or “The Kindergarten Teacher,” immigrants and refugees have been a strong theme.

Kadar did a public art piece for Napa’s First Street Plaza called “The Immigrants,” depicting a family of two parents and two children looking toward the future. Only the mother, carrying new life that signifies hope, is glancing back, representing “ties to the past not easily broken.” It reflects Kadar’s own mixed feelings looking back on a life of loss as well as great richness.

“I think back, it’s been a tough, but interesting life,” says Kadar. At 70, she found love again with fellow Hungarian Frank Kerscso, a biomedical engineer and inventor. They built their home, with wide hallways designed for art display, in a woodsy area of Santa Rosa in 2000.

These days she still takes great pleasure teaching art to a small group of women, coaching them while she paints in her home studio.

“She’s a wonderful teacher. She is critical but loving and encouraging,” says retired Napa College nursing instructor Bonnie Andersen. Andersen has been studying with her for years, going back to her days in Napa when Kadar taught embroidery.

Kadar’s other artistic passion is needlework. She has an extensive collection of linens she has created since she was a young girl, hand-embroidered with Hungarian folk designs. All are now carefully hung in wooden frames she flips through with admiration and pride, some stirring tender memories.

“So many times, it saved my sanity. I created something,” she says, gazing at an embroidery she did on the ship from Australia nearly 60 years ago.

A dying art

Although she could easily make her own patterns, she buys them from women in Kalotaszeg, a village in Romania where many of the older ethnic Hungarian women still preserve a proud tradition of needlepoint. (The region was split from Hungary after World War I.)

It’s a dying art that she tries to support and keep alive, almost as a quiet political statement.

“These nameless, talented women create it,” she says. “It is a labor of love. But I just have to do it.”

Still, her driving obsession remains her eggs, many of which she keeps or gives away to friends and families, even strangers.

For many years she walked to a nearby park and take a seat on a bench. When she stood up to leave, she left behind one exquisite little hand-painted egg, or perhaps two, a delightful find for some lucky person.

“They are always taken,” she says with a smile. “I really can’t walk by myself anymore. I go only if somebody helps me to walk there. But I’ve been doing it for years.”

She always leaves the eggs on the same bench, imagining the surprise they will bring to whomever finds them.

“I want to share,” she says, “what is so good for me.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 521-5204. On Twitter @megmmconahey.

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