Illuminating Letters: Paintings and Essays on the Kabbalah

Copyright © Elizabeth Fergus-Jean 2008


In your light I learn how to love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.

You dance inside my chest,
where no one sees you,

but sometimes I do,
and that sight becomes this art.

                                                                                                                            - Rumi


You Dance Inside My Chest
There is something about a numinous experience that defies explanation. Perhaps this is because inherent within the numinous experience is an encounter with Other, and each such encounter lacks a common point of reference. How then, can one give voice to an experience that is so private and so interior, where words alone cannot begin to explain the mystery of what has occurred? Yet as its witness, one knows without a shadow of a doubt that they've just encountered the unseeable. How can one illuminate the God that dances within them, and how can this experience be shared?
      Rumi, the 13th century mystic, shared his numinous experiences through poetry. His poetic language, full of metaphors and expansive images, opened up the world within his imagination; and as we visit this world through his words we also come to know places that were before unknown vistas. I, too, have had numinous encounters, most frequently when I am alone in nature or while I am transported while painting. This book contains the images and my story of one such experience, expressed in my personal poetics–my visual voice–in my paintings of the Hebrew Letters and in the words that emerged from these encounters. 

The Beginning of My Story

       The ecstatic union with the god satisfies not only a longing for self-abandonment but also a deep hunger for an experience of ecstatic communion with all of life. -Downing

I began working with the Hebrew alphabet in 1999 while I was a graduate student at Pacifica Graduate Institute working toward my Ph.D. in Mythological Studies, specifically during a course I took on Monotheistic Traditions taught by Dr. Christine Downing. This first encounter with the Hebrew Letters began what was to become a five-year odyssey of ecstatic wonder and numinous encounters. This book contains the products of this extraordinary journey: my twenty-two paintings of the Hebrew alphabet, their Prayer Poems, which were a vital part of the transformative experience of painting the Letters into being, and my personal process of journeying in the betwixt and between of the Imaginal realm as expressed in my essay "Dancing with the Numinous."
      The first section of my essay explores the life-long arc of my relationship and understanding of Images. I refer to this knowing through the metaphor of dance–for each encounter I have with Image is richly infused with movement and emotion that is rhythmic and fluid. I also share the ritual nature of my creative process, my intuitive dialogues, and the experiencing Images as subtle bodies. I ground my understanding of Image and art making within the language and context of depth psychology. It is my hopoe that this will provide the reader with access points to engage their own creative urgings, to more fully comprehend ways to imagine Image, and to see into the paintings and poems that act as the axis mundi of this book.
      The second section recalls how I was drawn to working with the Hebrew alphabet. This process includes my multidimensional opening up to the alphabet and the Kabbalah, and how the Letters themselves actively participated in selecting the materials that I would use to create their forms. I share the details of painting the letter Aleph, and how its form led me to a higher revelation, hearing the Letter speak to me within my being.

Partners in the Dance
In a sense all the contributors in the book are my dancing partners. From the start, Chris Downing was very supportive of my work and encouraged me to share it with others. Therefore when I was ready to take the work out into the world, I knew she would be a wonderful partner for the journey. Her contibution, "Alphabet Magic," provides a powerful and informative way to experience the wonder of letters. Her essay reflects on the history of letters and her own initial encounters with them. It is rich rich with knowledge, saturated with personal experience, and sparks in us the awe of such inspired encounters.
      My second partner, Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, provides a depth psychological inquiry into the Hebrew alphabet. His vast knowledge of Judaism provides yet another opening into perceiving the profound possibilities one can have when opening themselves up to experiencing these Letters. Mel and Chris have honored me by contributing to this book, and I am truly in awe of their knowledge and gifts that they have shared. Their essays dance with insight, and will effortlessly glide you across their imaginings. 
      I asked my husband, John, to write the introduction because he has been my dance partner for this entire journey. He has witnessed day-by-day, how I live in this world, surrounded and sometimes consumed by giving visual voice to Images. He has held me when I have been overwhelmed; edited my words, and supported me as I have tried to learn the process of publishing a book. John, quite simply, is the best dance partner any one could ask for, and I knew he should be the one to lead you all onto the dance floor of this journey. 
      I also want to share my thanks and gratitude to Bob Tauber at the Logan Elm Press at Ohio State University, for opening me up to the world of bookmaking. Through his tutelage, and my work as artist-in-residence at Logan Elm, I was able to create a limited-edition fine art portfolio on the Hebrew alphabet. And lastly, I thank David Bennett, a colleague at Columbus College of Art and Design, who through great patience helped teach me how to better navigate the mysterious world of Adobe InDesign.
      I ask you all now to join us in this dance of these amazing Illuminating Letters!