Climbing Jacob's ladder with words, paint and friendship


Wendy Vergoz grew up in Connecticut and New Jersey, and Sofiya Inger grew up in Kirov, Russia. They grew up around the same time, in the ’60s and ’70s. And while many aspects of their childhoods are different, one memory they share is that of playing Cat’s Cradle, a game in which string is stretched between fingers and made into various shapes.

Vergoz, who teaches writing at Marian University, refers to this game in her poem “Filled with Ladders, the World.” Inspiration for the poem came from the biblical story of Jacob’s ladder and her childhood. But she also drew inspiration from Inger’s painting “The World is Filled with Ladders” — which she saw in progress as Inger was painting it — and the conversations they had as part of their collaborative process.

So it’s no accident that the imagery in the painting reflects the imagery in the poem, in which childhood memories seem to be drawn up, as if from a well:

Strong-girl hands with slender fingers hold/Cat’s Cradle, Jacob’s ladder/ she climbs from seeds, from the singing bell/the ringing bell, the bicycle bell…

Both the painting and the poem are on display, side by side, at the Arthur M. Glick JCC Art Gallery through June 26 as part of the exhibition “Dreams & Sacrifice: Stories of Genesis Reimagined,” in which the work of 12 visual and performing artists were featured. (The performances took place at the opening on May 14.)

In Inger’s painting you see ghostly images in a sea of blue and green, but you also see the living. You see them all connected together in a sort of ladder composed of generations of humanity reaching up from the gray earth at the bottom all the way to the blue-green sky. The composition is thickly-layered acrylic on board: even the frame is painted: the entire work is framed, as it were, on the wall upon which it hangs.

In Vergoz’s poem, the image of Jacob’s ladder serves as both a metaphor and a structural girder for the poem itself: the poem is built like a ladder where indentations serve as rungs. Vergoz begins by writing of her own childhood and ends with imagery of her own children: the poem’s also a timeline that connects generation to generation.

“Also, we talked about using faces to represent light,” says Vergoz. “The line in my poem, ‘The faces are the light’ came directly from a conversation we had; those words are Sofiya’s.”

Although Vergoz and Inger have known each other for eight years (Vergoz’s daughter went to an IMA camp where Inger taught and they had exchanged business cards), it wasn’t until they took a workshop together — in which artists from various disciplines reimagined passages from the bible in their work — that they really clicked.

This particular workshop was on the binding of Isaac sponsored by the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative sponsored by Butler University in partnership with Christian Theological Seminary and led by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, Senior Rabbi Emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck.

The current exhibition at the JCC, which reflects on stories from Genesis, was organized by this initiative.

The creative fuel for Vergoz’s and Inger’s artistic collaboration began over a glass of wine in Vergoz’s condo. And while they use the biblical narrative as a starting point, it doesn’t limit itself to any one Jewish — or Christian — interpretation.

“We just started throwing ideas around,” says Vergoz. “And we said we wanted to put some female influence in, and expand it beyond just the Jewish story into more humanitarian and include other perspectives and voices.”

During the composition process, as Vergoz was writing and as Inger was painting, frantic emails were exchanged late at night. Vergoz visited Inger as she was painting and saw the deep blues and greens in the composition and this influenced her writing.

“And then I had a childhood memory of my father,” said Inger. “And she had a childhood memory of her family, her father and mother…and jumping ropes.”

And just as there is a movement up from the darkness towards the light in Inger’s painting, there’s something similar that went on during the gestation of Vergoz’s poem.

“The poem I wrote for the binding of Isaac is very dark,” says Vergoz. “And this poem is light and about grace in the world. And I feel like for us that it was our collaboration that partially fueled this.”

For more information about the Religion, Spirituality, and the Arts Seminar and how to apply to upcoming seminars click here.


Dan Grossman is NUVO's arts editor.

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