Stitch by Stitch: Embroidery by Eugenia Vainberg

Cleveland Heights artist Eugenia Vainberg never imagined that a birthday gift she received as a child in Kiev in 1936 would inspire a lifelong passion. The creative 8-year-old who loved to draw was presented with two boxes of colorful silk embroidery thread and needles. Her aunt and a neighbor, who were skilled embroiderers, taught her how to stitch. She soon discovered a talent for creating delightful works of art with thread. The war interrupted her education and temporarily halted her artistic endeavors. In 1941, her family fled to Samara (the city on Volga River, in Russia) ahead of the approaching Nazis. During three years in exile, Vainberg embroidered only one piece – there was no thread. After the war, her family returned to Kiev where Eugenia resumed her studies and later married. For 21 years while she worked as an electronic engineer and raised her two children, Vainberg almost abandoned her art. But after immigrating to the United States in 1977, she joined a quilting group and that ignited her desire to resume embroidering. A retired database analyst, Vainberg, 84, doesn’t let a day go by without stitching. This 71-piece exhibit is but a small sampling of the brightly colored, precisely rendered creations of this prolific artist.

Threads, both literal and figurative, run through Eugenia Vainberg’s embroidery. In choosing her subject matter, she is drawn to the confluence of Russian and Jewish artists who left their mark on the cultural landscape of the early 20th century. Many of her pieces are an homage to the greats of the avant-garde movement. This influential wave of modern art reached its popular peak between the Russian Revolution of 1917 and 1932, at which time the ideas of the movement clashed with the state-sponsored direction of Socialist Realism. Vainberg also considers herself a chronicler of history; reclaiming the cultural heritage she was not taught when she lived in the Soviet Union. It is an act of reclamation, a way to honor those artists who were purged by Stalin and whose works were banned. Nature, too, inspires Vainberg. She delights in capturing the intricate, colorful features of animals, insects and flowers in her paintings with thread.

In her embroidered portraits Vainberg celebrates numerous Russian artists, writers and performers of Jewish descent, many of whom were persecuted and met tragic ends under Stalin’s despotic rule. Isaac Babel, acclaimed the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry, was arrested, tortured and executed in 1940. Solomon Michoels, a great actor and the artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, was assassinated on Stalin’s personal order in 1948. In addition to his portrait, the exhibit includes Vainberg’s depiction of Michoels costumed as King Lear, a role for which he was famous. Ilya Ehrenburg was a prolific Russian writer and journalist, Jewish by birth though not in practice. From the 1930s to the 1960s he was one of the most visible Soviet figures, publishing poetry, short stories, travel books, essays and several novels. By adapting his writings to Soviet political demands, he was able to survive the changing political tides of his times. Considered one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th century, Boris Pasternak, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1958 for his novel Dr. Zhivago. Natan Altman was an avant-garde painter, stage designer and book illustrator. Karl Landsteiner, an Austrian-born biologist and physician, was the first to successfully distinguish the three human blood groups. Considered the father of transfusion medicine, he won the 1930 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Early in his career, he and another researcher isolated the polio virus, which proved to be the basis of the fight against this crippling disease. Son of a prominent Jewish journalist, Landsteiner converted to Catholicism at 21. He immigrated to the United States in 1923.

In addition to artists who were persecuted and whose work was suppressed, Vainberg also celebrates early 20th century avant-garde artists who achieved great fame.With silk thread on linen, Vainberg renders well-known images of Marc Chagall and Amadeo Modigliani. Two of Vainberg’s “after Modigliani” pieces depict Anna Akhmatova, his friend and muse. Later Akhmatova became a famous poet. Akhmatova’s work was condemned and censored by Stalinist authorities. Her first husband was executed by the secret police and later, her son and third husband were arrested and spent many years in the Gulag. Other artists whose work Vainberg recreates in embroidery are Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Victor Vasarely.

Vainberg also memorializes the work of a more contemporary Russian artist, Nadya Rusheva. Born in 1952, she lived only 17 years. But during her short life she created 10,000 paintings, drawings and illustrations. Virtually unknown in the west, her work is beloved in Russia.

See more of her works on her website at