It was the third week in January, and Princeton artist Marsha Levin-Rojer was excited to be returning to her studio, where she hadn’t been since the unexpected death of her husband, Charles Rojer, in November. Yet Charles is still with her, she freely admits.
She is surrounded by sculpture the otolaryngologist made when he took classes at the Abington Art Center in Pennsylvania. A ceramic woman’s head, black as onyx, sits on a spiral wooden pedestal. “He gave it to me for my birthday when we were dating. The only reason he married me,” she jokes, “was because he wanted the sculpture back.”
“As a head and neck surgeon, [making sculpture] helped Charles in his practice, as well as the other way around,” says Levin-Rojer, who celebrated 18 years of marriage with Rojer. It was a second marriage for both, blending their five children and nine grandchildren.
They met on a blind date, and part of the attraction was their love of travel and adventure. Rojer, a Belgian native and hidden child during the Holocaust, was inspired by John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley.” Levin-Rojer, a Francophile, dreamed of spending a year in Provence, painting. In 1999 the couple fulfilled both dreams, packing all their possessions into storage and driving across the U.S. and southern Canada, followed by a year in southern France.
Levin-Rojer’s paintings made during that period keep the memories a part of her present. Two are in her kitchen: with stone buildings, they show the Mediterranean landscape — cypress trees and vineyards, the Luberon Mountains in the background. “I did these to record my time there, and they’re very personal,” says Levin-Rojer.
The couple’s last trip together was in summer, 2015, to Maine, when Rojer was in good health (the cancer that took his life came on suddenly). As he drove Levin-Rojer sat in the passenger seat, cutting up paper for her suspended mandalas and putting the finishing touches on sculpture that was the visual centerpiece for Princeton University Concerts “Performance Up Close” 125th anniversary series concerts.
Performed in the round on the Richardson Auditorium stage, enabling audience members to interact with performers, the series seeks to re-imagine the classics.Levin-Rojer’s installations commissioned exclusively for the series are a part of that.
The next concert in the series is Ebene String Quartet on Wednesday, March 9, at 6 and 9 p.m.
“I have often marveled at the realization that sound waves, both invisible and ephemeral, form the basis of music,” says Levin-Rojer. “And as one who draws, I tend to see the world through lines: lines on a page, lines moving through space, lines suggested but not defined. In music lines are everywhere: sound waves, energy, melodies, voices — all inspire potential drawings.”
Her series for PUC125 is titled “The Musical Line.” “I create my lines with pencil, tape, wire, and with scissors. The common element is always line,” she says. “For me they are all drawings: sometimes on the page, sometimes in space.”
The first piece, “Rondo,” is made of aluminum wire shaped to represent the movement of sound waves in air. The second, “Chrysalis,” is made from 100 metallic Mylar cutouts suspended on monofilament. “It represents the magical perceptual transition of sound waves into music,” she says. The final, “Counterpoint,” is formed from 20,000 glass beads threaded on steel wire and twisted to celebrate the interplay of musical phrases. “Each has been designed to catch the light, the energy, and the magic of music,” says Levin-Rojer. Each will be displayed during one of the upcoming concerts.
Suspended above the performers, the shimmering forms are variations on the mandala, a theme that has intrigued Levin-Rojer for years. With their mysterious shadows and light, they bend and flutter in the breeze. “I like the ambiguity of it,” she says.
When MOVIS, the central New Jersey-based artsits collective, had an exhibit in France a few years ago, the artists had to create work that could be packed in their luggage, so Levin-Rojer created “Deconstructed Mandala” in frosted and clear Mylar that could expand and contract. She has also created mandalas from maps recycled from past journeys and cut until they become calligraphic. “It’s like drawing with scissors,” she says. “First you make an outline, then you go in and create shapes. I have done so many; I know the forms I like.”
While cutting up paper, she listens to music, although it may not be the same music that is performed during the series at Richardson. The work is meditative, like knitting, which she also does. “But this is more relaxing. The Mylar moves like fabric.”
Levin-Rojer was given the commission in July by Princeton University Concerts director Marna Seltzer, who had seen one of Levin-Rojer’s copper mandalas. The Princeton resident had two months in which to complete the work — including stringing the aforementioned 20,000 beads. “Charles helped. He did it because he loved me, and he was sweet,” she says.
Then they had to reinforce half of those 20,000 beads. “It took forever,” she says calmly. Even when she had to restring the Mylar three times to change the weight so it wouldn’t tangle, she remained calm. “I love the Mylar so I wanted to do one all clear, suspended in space, so it would flicker with magical sparkle and capture the energy of the music.”
The artist had a steel grid fabricated in sheet metal, from which the monofilament is attached. Japanese bobbins hold it all in place until the lines are dropped. Levin-Rojer did Pilates so she wouldn’t injure herself going up the ladder to suspend the works. In her studio she tests the design so that the facilities manager at Richardson can easily hang the work from the sound baffle.
Do the musicians feel upstaged by elaborate beaded shimmering works suspended over them? Levin-Rojer received a letter from David Greilsammer, pianist for the December recital of John Cage and Domenico Scarlatti: “I am writing you this message because I was absolutely overwhelmed by the beauty of your art piece that was installed above the two pianos. I found it inspiring, elegant, luminous, and at the same [time] extremely poetic and intimate. I could not have hoped for a more exquisite and meaningful artwork to accompany this recital, and especially the music of these two composers.”
She is now working on a series cutting up sheet music, using more of the beads. It might be exhibited in an upcoming MOVIS exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster in April titled “By Line.”
As a child growing up in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania — her mother was a homemaker and her father owned and operated vending machines — Marsha exhibited an aptitude for drawing, and so in high school she focused on art. Then in college she was driven to pursue a field that might lead to a secure career and majored in mathematics. After graduation from Temple University, she worked in medical research, making mathematical models of the heart. When it was discovered that she could draw, she was asked to illustrate a book on cardiovascular physiology.
Levin-Rojer went on to work as a cryptanalyst (code breaker) for the National Security Association. When her daughter was born three years later, she started drawing again, and in 1976, moving to Princeton, took art classes through the Princeton Art Association and Mercer County Community College.
In the mid-1980s she studied the figure with Bucks County painter Jacques Fabert. “In high school my training had been traditional and realistic, and I wanted to understand abstraction.”
Then, after a divorce, Levin-Rojer returned to mathematics and went to work as a systems analyst for Deloitte & Touche, having taught herself programming. Ten years later, at the age of 50, she fulfilled a promise to herself to return to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, where she had taken classes during her summers in high school.
“Some of my instructors would have been in the class I’d been in, had I gone there directly from high school,” says Levin-Rojer, who went on to become artist-in-residence and exhibitions committee chair at the former Montgomery Center for the Arts, chair of the Arts Council of Princeton exhibitions committee, and a member of both the Princeton Artists Alliance and MOVIS.
In order to summon up emotion for abstraction, she would allow drawing to evolve while listening to, say, Rachmaninoff or Beethoven or jazz. “There’s something about music — when you listen it sounds concrete, but it’s ephemeral. Going back to mathematics, I thought of the melody as linear, and the two lines intersecting to form a plane is the harmony. The intersection of planes forms the landscape, and music infuses landscape.”
Ebene String Quartet, Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, Princeton University, Wednesday, March 9, 6 and 9 p.m. $10 to $25.
Escher String Quartet, Thursday, March 24, 6 and 9 p.m.
Julien Labro, Accordion/Bandoneon/Accordina, Thursday, April 14, 6 and 9 p.m.
609-258-9220 or www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org/concerts#puc125.