Inspired to Heal: Sharing Chagall

Posted On June 3, 2022

By Christine Hall  »  Photos by John Patota

“No artist speaks to his audience as Marc Chagall does. In this time of world strife, you realize that Chagall was conveying that everyone in the world should have peace in his heart.” – Vivian R. Jacobson

It is with emotional depth and vulnerability that some of the greatest works of art are created. If one studies Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait, there comes salient recognition that the artist was bearing emotional hardship throughout its creation.

One such example is Jacob’s Ladder by 20th-century abstract-surrealist Marc Chagall. All of Chagall’s Biblical artwork were experienced from his religious Jewish studies as a young child in Vitebsk, Belarus. Whether it was through oil painting, tapestry, ceramics, theater or stained-glass, much of his creations were borne out of his own life’s experience, trials and tribulations, and against the backdrop of his unwavering Jewish faith. Put simply, his art created a narrative of identity and inclusion during unjust and turbulent times.

Chicago native and Pinehurst resident Vivian R. Jacobson dialed into this narrative at a young age visiting the Art Institute of Chicago. It was here that she was first exposed to Chagall’s work, which set off a lifetime interest and passion for the artist’s persona and works, ultimately culminating in the friendship the two shared for more than a decade.

In 1974 Chagall was invited to Vivian’s home in Chicago on behalf of the Hadassah Medical Organization. Vivian had wanted to enrich her native city to be the second city in the world, following Jerusalem, to include a Chagall tapestry, stained glass window and mosaic. Little did she know that this meeting would sow the seeds for her own legacy. Now at age 86, the Jewish girl who once walked the museum halls of the Art Institute has turned into a benefactor and global lecturer of Chagall, spreading the messages of peace, reconciliation, hope and love that were at the heart of his creations.

My interview with Vivian Jacobson took me on a journey through a time capsule reflecting her love of art and faith. I had the good fortune of sitting down with Vivian and Maximilian Kempf, a soulful 21st-century playwright from New York City, to discuss the meaning behind Chagall’s most prized works, and the plans for sharing his gifts with all.

The setting was the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where Vivian and her husband Ralph Jacobson chose to dedicate the rare and historic collection of memoirs and correspondence retained throughout her and the artist’s friendship.

“My hope is this collection will be seen as a research center on the life and art of Marc Chagall and the importance of perseverance and courage,” says Vivian. “He was a great person who brought so much happiness to people through his artwork.”

Having conducted research in New York, France, Israel and Germany over a span of 40 years, Vivian had an unwavering desire to have the narrative research open to the public. The Jacobsons felt the public university was a natural choice due to its mission of inclusion and appreciation for the values of all people.

“UNC Pembroke was originally founded for the education of Native Americans and has grown today to include serving a diverse student body with the mission of changing lives through education,” said Dr. Robin Cummings, the Chancellor of the university. “It was the perfect choice – close to the Jacobson’s home in proximity, which added comfort that the resources were near, and a place that her treasured materials could touch the lives of students near and far.” Vivian also wanted to honor Chancellor Robin Cummings, who performed surgery on her late husband Ralph Jacobson, with this immeasurable gift of art.

“Students will be able to incorporate this research into their studies, and the school has already instituted great plans to digitize and catalogue the materials for both in-person and remote accessibility,” Vivian conveyed.

The Collection, which will be fully available this Fall, contains Vivian’s book, Sharing Chagall: A Memoir, articles, catalogues and a bibliography that dynamically links to resources to other libraries around the world. In addition, the collection includes personal letters, emails, pictures and postcards that depict Vivian and the artist’s friendship, joint political and socio-economic efforts, and lastly, several prized posters signed by Marc Chagall.

Perhaps one of the most meaningful outcomes of the unique friendship was the creation and installation of the “Job Tapestry” at The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, currently housed at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab. Vivian was at the forefront of its commissioned creation, which became the artist’s last major tapestry project to be completed. A presentation of the Chagall tapestry to the patients of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and to their families was made on June 20, 1986.

At the time of its dedication, The Chicago Tribune wrote that “Inspiration is an important healing process at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, a world center for treatment of problems of the handicapped, […] it will assume a task not usually demanded of a work of art. A colorful scene from the Old Testament story of Job, it is to be the Rehab`s rallying banner.”

Today the “Job Tapestry” hangs on the 10th floor of the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab adjacent to the chapel to greet those who walk through the doors with therapeutic concerns. “Radiating hope, a million strands of color show the community of mankind giving to one another, throughout their long struggle, a continual prospect of renewal,” describes the Tribune account.

According to Dr. Henry Betts, who spearheaded the Rehabilitation Institute’s creation and endeavors, the cherished art could help those in both physical pain and mental anguish. Don Olson, then Director of Education, recalled the impact the Chagall project had on the Institute and the role Vivian played in its creation.

“Vivian was a powerhouse who kept the project alive no matter what. Henry Betts believed that art was healing, and that Chagall was like a doctor,” said Olson. “The Tapestry was to go in the lobby, which was our busiest spot. Throughout the years, I have seen patients studying the work and drawing comfort from it.”

Sitting down with us at Pembroke to learn and discuss the ways in which Vivian Jacobson and Marc Chagall partnered for change was Kempf, a young producer and playwright. Following a hunch that theatergoers would crave therapeutic narratives following a pandemic, Maximilian travelled to North Carolina to investigate Chagall’s mission of world peace through the union of art and music. Having read Vivian’s book, the playwright gravitated to the friendship of Marc Chagall and Dr. Henry Betts and their shared mission to heal through the power of art.

“As a theater maker, I share the activist drive of Marc Chagall and Dr. Henry Betts to shape the future generation,” says Maximilian. “While the stage is my domain, compared to the paint brush or scalpel, it is my mission to unite theatergoers of all walks of life to find common ground and share in humanity of their shared struggles.”

The research center in Pembroke will be a global resource for contemporary minds to experience the legacies set forth by the artistic masters who came before us. We can only hope that our coming generations of artists, from varying mediums, can continue to illuminate the hearts and minds of those who suffer, and continue to have the power to affect change.

To learn more about Jacobson Chagall Art Research Collection, visit uncp.edu.

About Chagall

Born Moishe Shagal, a Russian-Jew in Liozna (present day Belarus), he changed his name to the more French-sounding Marc Chagall when attending the School of Paris. Chagall depicted the very tie that binds us together as humans – a desire to overcome obstacles on the path to joy and happiness.

Vivian Jacobson traces her association with Chagall from her days in Chicago when she and her husband hosted a reception for the noted artist on behalf of the Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem, Israel. Following that event, she became a founding member of the American Friends of Chagall’s Biblical Message Museum in Nice, France. Ultimately, as President of that organization, her closeness with Chagall grew as she served as the primary American source of fundraising for major international projects.