In the Book of Genesis, Jacob dreams of a ladder connecting earth to heaven; through the night, angels travel up and down between the two realms. In a show now on display at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco, two local artists explore the connection between the corporal and spiritual worlds addressed in the Bible story.
“Jacob wakes up in the morning, he takes off his shoes and he realizes he’s in this sacred place,” said Andréa D. Guérra, a painter and photographer who developed the show’s theme in collaboration with the other contributing artist, Elyssa Wortzman. “For me, there’s this question of, ‘Am I in this sacred place, but I just don’t realize it?’ ”
Titled “Up/Down,” this is the library’s second show this year to feature two artists presenting work on a shared theme in Jewish text. Elayne Grossbard, the show’s curator, recruited local Jewish artists Guérra and Wortzman and proposed that they select a topic together that would allow them to create dialogue through art. In conversations at the end of last year, Guérra and Wortzman landed on the original stairway to heaven as a Jewish story and symbol that was meaningful to both of them.
“It was in chevruta, really,” said Guérra, using the Hebrew term for studying sacred texts with a partner. “We came to Jacob’s Ladder as being a very rich place to work with many ideas fulminating,” added Guérra, who teaches at the San Francisco JCC’s Havurah Youth Center.
Wortzman sees the ladder as a metaphor for spiritual development and transformation. She moved to the Bay Area from New York within the last year when her husband, Rabbi Aubrey Glazer, became the spiritual leader of San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom. In addition to being an artist, Wortzman is a Jewish educator and is completing a doctorate of ministry in Jewish spiritual direction for youth. She said that moving across the country with her husband and daughter made her think about opportunities for reinvention.
“In the story, the angels continue to go up and down all night. It makes the motion of a spiral,” Wortzman said. “Every time [people] go up a rung of the ladder, they overcome some sort of obstacle: a move, a new job, a relationship. Then we come down, and we’re overcoming the challenges again.”
Wortzman contributed abstract paintings and mixed media images to the show. An installation called “22” includes a bookshelf display of 22 small paintings that blend, like book covers, into their surroundings. They are meant to represent the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Some sages, Wortzman said, have interpreted each rung of Jacob’s ladder to represent a Hebrew letter.
“By going up and down and moving the letters around, transmuting the letters, we create different words, and we create different realities,” Wortzman said. “It allows us to elevate things, to make things more sacred.”
A placard next to “22” encourages viewers to rearrange the small paintings on the shelves. They are then instructed to turn them over to find a different Hebrew letter on the back of each painting; some paintings also have English text relating to the story of Jacob’s ladder or to contemporary issues that are thematically linked.
Guérra’s pieces include paintings on paper and linocuts that depict empty ladders, sometimes floating in space, against natural backgrounds. The image of empty ladders came to her when she meditated on the biblical passage.
“For me, the ladder serves so many interpretations,” she said. The story emphasizes the link between heaven and earth, but “in our lives that is not so clear. The ladder raises the question, ‘Is God in this place?’ … Is the ladder actually empty?”
Expanding on that theme, the two artists also staged “In This Place,” held in June at Beth Sholom. For that show, Guérra contributed photographs that exuded emptiness — a path disappearing into the woods, a pine tree standing alone in the landscape. Wortzman created a piece called “Where Is God?” which had strips of wood displayed like the rungs of a ladder. Visitors could use chalk to write or draw their answers to that question on the wooden strips.
“The layers [built] upon each other as more people [visited] and they [drew] on top of each other,” Wortzman said. “At the end of the show, you [had] a visual reflection of where this community situates sacredness.”
She compared the experience to Jacob’s realization in Genesis.
“At the end of the night, he wakes up and says, ‘God was in this place, and I didn’t know it.’ ”
“Up/Down” by Andréa D. Guérra and Elyssa Wortzman, through Aug. 26, Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Free. www.jewishlearningworks.org/library