Kepka Belton - Kansas Folk Art
Judy Cochran, Apprentice
Kepka Belton of Ellsworth is known for her beautifully decorated Czech eggs. Using chicken or geese eggs and a special waxing and dyeing technique, Kepka keeps alive the traditions of her grandparents.
Kepka was born on a farm near Wilson, Kansas, in 1934. Four generations before, her ancestors had immigrated from a little town north of Prague. They had come to Kansas in 1876 as some of the earliest settlers in Ellsworth county. Today Kepka is the keeper of a small shoe box with family remnants from what is now called Czechoslovakia.
The family name was Kopka but at some point it was changed to read Kepka. Kepka was born with the name Betty Rose Vanek. Unfortunately, her father died before she was born. Three years later her mother married Frank Hochman who adopted Kepka and she became Betty Hochman. By college her classmates had begun calling her Kepka, after her maternal grandmother Barbara Kepka. The name Belton she uses today comes from her husband.
Kepka's grandmother was a major influence on her life. Kepka's mother had to teach school following the death of her husband. This meant that Kepka spent considerable time with her grandmother.
My grandmother was the most marvelous person, the most wonderful teacher I've ever had. I can't say that she taught me a lot of everything I know, but whatever she did, if it was making Czech noodles, if it was making eggs, if it was drawing symbols on paper, whatever it was, she would always give me a little of it to do. . . . She taught me the most important thing and that was to watch her work and to develop the sense of wanting to do it.—Kepka Belton
Kepka first learned to make kraslice or decorated eggs from her grandmother. She remembers they only made them at Easter. Her grandmother would get out the candles and the eggs and they would sit around the kitchen table making kraslice. The technique she learned from her grandmother was one of applying wax and then dyeing the eggs, much like batik work. Kepka remembers her grandmother boiling crepe paper for dyes. She also remembers using walnut shell husks for dyes, although she does not remember if she learned this from her grandmother or from her own early experimentation. Kepka recalls, "We just set them [the eggs] around for Easter and they got broken, nobody saved them."
When Kepka's mother remarried the family moved away from the farm to the town of Ellsworth fifteen miles away. Although her Czech heritage was always with her, other activities began to occupy her time. Her interest in kraslice lay dormant for many years. After high school Kepka attended Emporia State University where she earned a degree in art. While in college she continued to make kraslice but she never made more than a dozen or so a year. The eggs she made during this period were usually given to relatives as gifts. When Kepka looks back on the experience she remembers being disappointed with the quality of the eggs. She found herself becoming discouraged.
After graduation she worked as an apprentice to a jeweler in Omaha, Nebraska, for $30 a week. After a year in Omaha she moved to Kansas City, Missouri, and went to work for Hallmark Cards. While at Hallmark she began to call up her Czech heritage while designing greeting cards. She recalls that one day she was drawing a peacock and in the eyes of the feathers she placed Czech eggs. She received encouragement from other artists to explore her Czech heritage in her work.
After spending two years in Kansas City, Missouri, Kepka moved back to Kansas to become a teacher. It was during this period that she began displaying her work at festivals and fairs. "I had about a dozen eggs left over from ones I was giving to relatives," she remembers, "and I took them to an art show in Wichita with my paintings. People just looked at them, they had never seen decorated eggs before and they really liked them." Kepka started taking eggs to more and more festivals. "And, of course," she points out, "when you have customers buying them, that's always an inspiration."
A teaching job became available in her hometown of Wilson. "I guess I was fated to be an egg artist because something kept drawing me back here," explains Kepka. Once she returned to Ellsworth County she became actively involved in promoting the Czech heritage of the community. Her work with kraslice helped her to feel positive about her heritage. This attitude was enhanced when she began to share her skills with more and more people.
In 1980 a journalist for the Associated Press wrote an article on the "egg lady" of Kansas. People of Czech heritage from throughout the United States wrote to Kepka asking for recipes, wanting to buy her eggs, and sharing their own experiences as Czech-Americans. Kepka is proud of the fact that she answered every letter. When asked about her position among Czech-Americans, Kepka responds, "I think I'm giving them pride in being Czech. I'm giving them a sense of realizing how important it is to keep these traditions alive. These are things that bind people together."
Kepka spends a good deal of time sharing her work with others. She has participated in the Wilson Czech After Harvest Festival for more than 15 years. She also has appeared at numerous festivals throughout the region, as well as participating in the 1976 Festival of American Folklife held in Washington, D.C. In 1988 Kepka was honored with a National Heritage Fellowship. This honor is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and is given to outstanding master folk artists in the United States.
Although she enjoys the honors that have been awarded her, she is particularly proud of the work she has done in the area of teaching. As an art teacher in the community of Wilson she tries to instill ethnic pride in her students, the majority of whom share her Czech heritage. She teaches her students the art of kraslice. Kepka is particularly proud that several of her students have won awards for their eggs.
Kepka has participated in the Kansas Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program since it began in 1985. She has worked individually with three different apprentices including Richard Barnhill, Judy Cochran, and Paula Darby. She has helped all three to refine their techniques, concentrating on the waxing and dyeing process. However, the focus of the apprenticeship has been to help the apprentice fully understand the motifs used to decorate eggs. Kepka claims that the Czechs were a very superstitious people. She remembers her grandfather explaining that around every corner in Czechoslovakia there was a different ghost. She recalls the story of her grandmother's friend who would put an ax by her bed and a star like design above it. These symbols were placed there as protection. She explains, "All of these things were woven into the fabric of what the people believed and how they lived." Similar motifs are found in kraslice.
Kepka has little patience for people who ask for patterns for her eggs. Producing folk art is not achieved by reproducing a set pattern.
You don't need a pattern, you need the language. . . . What I try to do with my apprentices is not so much to teach them to copy my work, because I think whether you are a folk artist or a fine artist, you are basically an artist. So what I am doing is not teaching them to do what I do, but this is the language and speak it as you will. When you have the language, everybody is an artist, everybody can create. You need to develop your skills, but you need the language.—Kepka Belton
Judy Cochran of Atwood is one apprentice who has spent time with Kepka learning the "language" of kraslice. Judy is Czech-American on her mother's side and has lived all of her life in western Kansas. Her mother, Sonia Domsch, carries on the family tradition of bobbin lace making. Judy grew up watching her mother and her Great-aunt Anna make lace but she took the folk art for granted. "A lot of times when we're young and grow up with things, we don't appreciate them," recalls Judy. However, it was through the family tradition of lace making that Judy became acquainted with kraslice. Through various folklife events in Kansas, Kepka and Judy's mother became friends.
Judy was living on a farm when she was introduced to kraslice. She was raising chickens, turkeys, and geese and trying to sell enough eggs at 50 cents a dozen to pay for the feed. After a visit with Kepka, Judy's mother brought home a few decorated eggs. Judy inquired what her mom had paid for them. "I thought very logically," recalls Judy, "that with $5 a dozen I could buy a whole lot more feed if I could learn that." Although there were economic motivations, Judy also found Kepka's eggs fascinating. She had never seen anything like them. On her own she tried to imitate the strokes but quickly found that the eggs were not painted. She asked her mother to find out more information the next time she saw Kepka. At the time, Kepka was beginning to market her lap studios for making kraslice. Judy's mom traded a piece of lace for a lap studio for Judy.
The studio contained a book that Kepka had written explaining the techniques of egg decorating.
So I sat down and after reading the book and looking at the first two simple patterns, I produced my first couple of eggs. I was astounded. To me it was easy. It was also intriguing to me because I knew each time I picked up an egg I could make it look different.—Judy Cochran
The next time Kepka and Judy's mother got together Judy sent samples of her eggs for Kepka to see. Kepka was impressed at how quickly Judy had picked up the techniques and suggested that she apply for an apprenticeship.
The apprenticeship for Judy was a financial necessity. She was not in a position to pay Kepka for lessons and she was unable to afford the transportation costs to visit Kepka in Ellsworth, which is approximately an hour-and-one-half-hour drive. The apprenticeship was also a creative necessity. As Judy points out, "You can sit at home and produce eggs. But I had nobody else to talk to about it, nobody to trade secrets to, nobody that really cared."
Judy worked very hard during her apprenticeship. She estimates that during the first year, she probably spent eight to ten hours a day on an average of five days a week making eggs. Judy has become an outstanding kraslice artist. Her work has also had an economic impact upon her life. She is unable to keep a basic stock of eggs because the demand for her work always exceeds her output.
Kepka and Judy have developed a very special relationship. Judy says, "She has become almost like a second mother or a best friend to me." Kepka comments, "She has been a marvelous person to pass this down to. I would have felt badly investing my time in somebody to just have them drop what they have learned. Judy is somebody who I truly feel will keep on. When I die, I can die peacefully thinking everything I've done will go on." Judy is committed to both Kepka and the art of kraslice.
She will never lose her value to me. Regardless of where I am with my abilities, she will always be my master. . . . Hopefully I am in a position that I can find someone interested enough to learn it. It is not an art that is lost. Throughout history we have lost so many things that should stand to be important to us—our ceremonies, our arts. If somebody doesn't rekindle these things sooner or later the only way we are going to be able to know we have these things is through history books. . . . A lot of people think that maybe the folk arts are just another craft and I really hate to see us lumped in like that. The traditional art form that we are doing is a part of history, it is a part of our past.—Judy Cochran
From Kansas Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program © KSHS 1989
Entry: Belton, Kepka - Kansas Folk Art
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: February 2011
Date Modified: July 2012
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.