Tucked away in the serene, verdant setting of Oyster Bay on Long Island, New York, lies an undiscovered treasure trove of Jewish needlepoint art, carefully crafted over six decades. The artist behind this spiritual tapestry, Ilana Limoni, is entirely self-taught and has created an impressive collection of around 300 works. Her journey in the world of canvas work demonstrates dedication, passion, and the pursuit of excellence. Modest and unassuming, Ilana’s greatest wish is to find an appropriate home for her remarkable Judaica pieces. This article aims to shed light on the artist as well as her life’s work, striving to give them the recognition they truly deserve.
Background and Early Life
Born in Haifa in 1937, Ilana is the daughter of Mala and Zvi. Driven by Zionist ideals and inspired by their active involvement in the ‘Akiva’ movement in Krakow, Ilana’s parents made the momentous decision to leave Poland and relocate to Eretz Yisrael. Embarking on a voyage by train and boat, they fulfilled their dream of making Aliyah as they arrived at the shores of Israel in January 1934.
Ilana and her younger brother grew up in a less than modest single-room basement on Rechov Michael in Haifa, and attended the Alliance Israélite Universelle school. For the first eleven years of her life, she lived under British Mandate rule before witnessing Israel’s emergence as an independent nation. During her early adulthood, Ilana joined the IDF and took part in the Sinai War in 1956.
Discovering the Art of Needlepoint
The following year Ilana married the love of her life, Uri, who she had met during their military service. In 1963, while expecting their first child, Ilana discovered and developed her passion for the art of needlepoint.
I remember the moment quite clearly. I was visiting a friend, and I noticed a needlepoint canvas at her place. That was the first time I had ever seen needlepoint.
Always finding joy in working with her hands, whether through embroidery or similar crafts, Ilana was captivated by this newfound form of artistic expression. Venturing into a Haifa store selling threads and related materials, she sought guidance from the shop owner. Limoni received a quick lesson on the basics of needle movement and left with a handful of thread to kick-start her journey. Fueled by her passion for learning, this moment marked the start of Ilana’s lifelong dedication to the creation of needlepoint art.
After moving to the United States in 1965 and welcoming her second child, Ilana eagerly honed her needlepoint skills by learning various techniques from books and visiting numerous stores to find canvases and threads. Initially, she focused on smaller projects, holding the canvas in her hands as she worked. Her husband Uri encouraged her to embark on larger pieces, leading her to discover the benefits of using free-standing frames to secure the canvases. This approach allowed Ilana to create more elaborate and intricate pieces, broadening her creative scope. In the years preceding her collaboration with artist Lindy Tilp, Ilana depended on commercially painted canvases and grafts for her artwork.
The Enduring Partnership with Painter Lindy Tilp
Eventually, I wanted to work on something original, as I had trouble finding anything interesting enough in the stores. In 1972 I met Lindy Tilp, a very talented artist, who happened to live nearby. After she made her initial painting for me, I realized how incredible it was to have someone able to paint any picture I wanted, directly onto a canvas.
For over four decades, the dynamic artistic alliance between Ilana Limoni and Lindy Tilp has produced an exceptional collection of needlepoint art encompassing various themes such as biblical, medieval, Asian, nature, and tributes to renowned paintings by the likes of Chagall, Picasso and Klimt. The creative process often entailed exhaustive research and planning, with Ilana spearheading the development of themes and adaptations of Jewish texts. Lindy, with her expertise and finesse, adeptly captured the spirit of Ilana’s visions. Her illustrations formed the basis that empowered Ilana to delve into her own artistic concepts, transcending the constraints of ready-made canvas designs.
The Significance of Needlepoint Art in Jewish Culture
Needlepoint art is a complex form of embroidery that requires immense skill, patience, and attention to detail. Limoni’s work showcases her mastery of diverse materials, including cotton, silk, wool, and metallic fibers. This artform holds a cherished place in Jewish culture and history, serving as a means of artistic expression, cultural preservation, and a reflection of Jewish traditions. From the detailed embroidery on Torah mantles, ark curtains, and chuppah canopies, to the adornment of tallitot and kippot, the use of a needle and thread to create sophisticated designs and patterns on a fabric or canvas has long played a vital role in the visual expression of Jewish faith and tradition.
The Influence of Ilana’s Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America
In the early 1980s, Ilana enrolled at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where she not only earned a master’s degree with the highest honors but also completed all course requirements in their PhD program.
The influence of her seven-year education can be seen in her Jewish-themed sets, which include the ‘Five Scrolls Collection’, the ‘Biblical Scenes Collection’, and the ‘General Judaica Collection’. In these series, Limoni expertly intertwines text and imagery, creating a visual narrative that invites viewers to engage with the rich history and tradition of Judaism.
The Five Scrolls Collection: A Testament to Heritage and Artistry
Among Ilana Limoni’s most extraordinary creations, and arguably her most significant contribution to Judaica needlepoint art, is the ‘Five Scrolls Collection.’ Each piece is a testament to the power of needlepoint as a medium for storytelling. Crafted on 11 panels using cotton petit point canvas, 18 mesh mono weave (ie, 324 stitches per square inch), and with some as tall as 230 cm (90”) in height, the series showcases Ilana’s ability to transform written words into captivating art, bringing the complete ancient texts of the five Megillot to life through vibrant colors and intricate patterns.
First of the Chamesh Megillot (the five scrolls), and the initial creation in the collection, is Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) in which Ilana crafted two panels depicting idyllic and romantic scenes that embody the text’s themes of love and passion. She stitched the Hebrew text using an impressive self-created alphabet graph and various materials and techniques. Taking one year each to complete, the panels were finished in 1988 and 1989. Ilana’s Shir Hashirim highlights the connection between her art and love for family, having dedicated it to her husband Uri. During the following decade, in addition to numerous other works, she also stitched three panels for Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in stunning shades of blue, the last completed in 1998.
After what subsequently turned into a 14-year hiatus from working on the scrolls project, Ilana felt revitalized and eager to finish what she had started. Megillat Esther was woven on three panels which were completed in 2013, 2015, and 2016, and for variety Ilana added beads for the first time. In striking colors, some of the main illustrations on these panels portray Esther bravely approaching the king to save her people, Haman praising Mordechai while leading him on horseback, and the presence of a scribe at the bottom of the final panel, indicating end of the five scrolls.
A Loving Partnership: The Support and Inspiration of Ilana’s Husband, Uri
Uri, played an indispensable role throughout Ilana’s artistic journey. His unwavering belief in her talent and dedication to her craft helped Ilana to push the boundaries of her artistry.
There was no one more supportive than Uri. He provided whatever I needed, regardless of the cost of the threads or canvas, and never complained about me spending too much. His encouragement was his greatest contribution to my life.
Together, they formed a partnership that enabled her to produce deeply meaningful and visually impressive works of art that reflect their shared love for Jewish culture and history. Uri inspired several of her most captivating pieces. Two artifacts that once caught Uri’s eye in an auction house catalog, an 1870s Hanukkiah and an early 19th-century Torah shield, both from L’viv, Ukraine, became the muse for three of Ilana’s most extraordinary creations. She skillfully paid tribute to these pieces, employing a palette of gold and silver hues to mimic the look of precious metals. Notably, the Torah shield that inspired the two works Ilana titled ‘Golden Shrine,’ is now housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
The Future of Ilana Limoni’s Needlepoint Legacy
Through her intricate and meaningful creations, Ilana has woven together the threads of Jewish history, tradition, and spirituality, contributing in her own way to the preservation of Jewish culture. Now, at 85 years of age, Ilana’s biggest hope is that her Judaica art will find a suitable home where they can be displayed and appreciated by generations to come.
My preference is for the five Megillot to find a home within a Jewish establishment. Besides this collection, my other Jewish-themed works include ‘Garden of Eden, ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, ‘Exodus from Egypt’, and several more. These pieces all deserve placement in a Jewish environment, although they don’t necessarily need to be kept together nor in the same location as the five scrolls. The ‘Five Scrolls Collection’ is so unique and should be kept together. If that doesn’t happen, I would be deeply saddened.
Ilana’s work holds immense potential to inspire and educate those who experience it. In the words of Ilana herself, when she looks back at her incredible body of work, she finds it hard to believe that she actually created them – an indication of her humility and the extraordinary talent that she has brought to the world of canvas work.
It’s difficult to comprehend the amount of time and effort that went into each piece. So, I sometimes think that maybe I didn’t do it, even though I know I did.
The legacy she leaves behind is a shining example of the power of art to connect us to our roots and enrich our understanding of the past.
For more information about Ilana Limoni and her needlepoint art, please visit www.ilanasneedlepoints.com. If you represent a museum, university/college, synagogue, community center, hospital, or other Jewish or Israeli institution, and you are interested in adopting and displaying some of Ilana’s work, please contact Tami Meyerson at email@example.com.