He composes lyrics and music. She paints them. Singer-songwriter Scott Massarsky of Oakland and painter-puppeteer Jennifer Levine of Montclair have been working together for a handful of years, and their latest effort revolves around a series of songs he has written focusing on the Holocaust.
The two will perform “The Parting” in a Yom Hashoa commemoration on Saturday, April 6, at The Art Garage/StudioKids Art, Montclair. It will feature Levine “Painting a Song” to Massarsky’s music, accompanied by cellist Jessie Smith and percussionist Matt Olson.
Levine and Massarsky explained their unusual collaboration at a Montclair cafe on March 15, following the dedication of a mostly unrelated project at the Bradford Elementary School in the town.
Despite a 10-year age difference (she’s in her 40s, he’s in his 30s) they found they had a lot in common when they met at a book illustrator event in Montclair. “After she heard my music, she asked me to come to her studio and play while she paints,” said Massarsky. “We never planned on collaborating; it just happened organically.”
They have drawn on their multimedia partnership both for inspiration in her studio as well as for performances, and have branched out into the education world: At the Bradford school, they dedicated a “peace garden” mural that resulted from music he helped the children write, and that in turn inspired other children to create the mural, guided by Levine.
Massarsky trained as an artist at the School of Visual Arts in New York and works in a variety of mediums. Levine is a self-trained painter, who also has training in circus arts.
Both have deep Jewish roots. A good deal of Levine’s work focuses on Jewish themes, including several paintings and her “Princess Moxie” puppet show based on her grandmother’s experience as a Jewish immigrant on the Lower East Side.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and served as director of education at Temple Emanu-El of Closter for five years.
Massarsky, who served as a music teacher at Emanu-El, credits his summer at the Reform movement’s Camp Harlam for his sense of Jewish community. “Judaism for me is ever-changing. I think about it a lot,” he said.
Together, the two artists find they can explore their identity as Jews, including their spiritual connections, the Holocaust, their ancestors, and the concept of peoplehood.
Several years ago, Massarsky was finishing a project funded by the Puffin Foundation, in which he was performing music and poetry and displaying his artwork in area libraries. Looking for inspiration for the final installation at the Franklin Lakes Library, he closed his eyes, and pulled random books from that library’s shelves. They were all on Holocaust topics. Looking at the date the library had assigned for the event, he realized it was Yom Hashoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
After watching documentaries on the Kindertransport — the prewar rescue mission that brought nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Nazi Europe to England — as well as the Shanghai Ghetto, he completed the project.
The April 6 event will feature the songs Massarsky composed during that grant cycle and Levine’s artwork. Massarsky plans to record the songs for an album.
Levine said she learned about the Holocaust and the Kindertransport before she had children. “Watching this documentary with my own 11-year-old impacted me in a way I had never experienced,” she said. She created The Parting, a painting depicting the moment parents put children on the train. “It totally stirred me and made me want to paint that emotion — love and an expression of loss and sacrifice.” The Parting will be displayed at the event along with several other completed paintings, in addition to the paintings that will be created live.
Massarsky and Levine said they hope to focus attention on all kinds of genocide, from the Holocaust to Rwanda and Darfur. “If we plant the seeds of being aware, that in itself can change the world,” said Massarsky.