“We rushed to the next town, and I charged my phone enough to call them back,” Gibson, a visual artist, said. “I finished the call and sat there dumbfounded. I’m familiar with MacArthur, but I never even knew how it worked.”
Intriguingly opaque, the yearly prizes — $625,000 gifts that have come to be known as the “genius grants” — are renowned for elevating the work of a diverse range of relatively obscure artists, academics and social justice advocates. Yet none of the recipients have applied for the honor. Instead, an anonymous selection committee reviews nominations it has fielded from authorities in a variety of disciplines.
The fellowship is a no-strings-attached award — there are no reports due to the foundation or future evaluations of progress. It’s an investment in the creative potential of those who have already shown what the MacArthur website describes as “the power of individual creativity to reframe old problems, spur reflection, create new knowledge, and better the world for everyone.”
It’s fitting then that among the class of fellows this year, quite a few of them have made careers producing experimental art, reimagining forms, challenging canons and examining the intersections between different traditions and cultures.
Gibson, 47, who hails from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, combines Western contemporary art with indigenous materials and styles in his pieces. In one series, he attaches fringe skirts and colored beads to Everlast punching bags, lending them an almost human shape and undermining the male energy of the boxing gear with campy flair. His goal, he said, is to introduce a visual vocabulary that articulates the diversity and intermingling he sees throughout today’s society.
“Things these days are so cross-referenced, and we haven’t named them,” he said, “haven’t given the language to describe what’s amazing or what’s possible about these new things.”
Sometimes, a splashy name or two will appear on the roster — this year, it’s Ocean Vuong, 30, the Vietnamese American author whose debut novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” was a bestseller, and Elizabeth Anderson, 59, a philosopher and subject of an extensive New Yorker profile. But it’s mostly more obscure professionals who receive that legendary late-summer phone call out of the blue.
Other avant-garde artists awarded grants include Sarah Michelson, 55, a choreographer lauded for letting her dancers show the sweat and strain that fuel their art; and Valeria Luiselli, 36, who has blended fiction and essay writing to explore themes of dislocation and translation in her English and Spanish prose.
For Michelson, the most daunting — and exciting — aspect of this honor is the newfound recognition and attention that’s bundled with it. She described herself as working “in very limited ways,” without even social media or a website to promote her personal brand. And yet she was picked, and she remains humbled by the fact.
“There’s something about being selected in such a serious way,” she said. “Now it feels like I’m working with a face. It gives me that confidence to keep working.” But first, she said, “I want to reach out to everyone who’s ever worked with me, try to get them together and thank them all. Because they’re a part of this, too.
Luiselli said she is working on a multimedia project that moves from written word to audio about the killing of women at the U.S.-Mexico border. She said it was crucial that her work contribute to the public debate about migration. She was riding on Amtrak with her 9-year-old daughter when the foundation came calling. The representative told her to find somewhere private, so she commandeered the bathroom stall. When she returned to her seat, she was beaming. Her daughter wouldn’t let the matter drop.
“I had to confess,” Luiselli said. Before the MacArthur Foundation makes the announcement public, fellows are permitted to let only one other person know of their new distinction. “It’s okay, though. I swore her to secrecy.”
Paid in installments over a five-year period, the fellowship’s stipend can be spent in whatever manner the fellow wants. The financial stimulus is a boon for the artists in particular.
“Now I can think a little bigger, realize things that before might not have been possible logistically, financially,” said Mary Halvorson, 38. “I have that freedom of time and space. I also want to study.”
Halvorson is a guitarist, composer and ensemble leader who infuses rock, folk and other musical traditions with her jazz background. Jazz is an inherently experimentative form, she said, developed through eras of cultural exchange and sonic improvisation, and she sees her own work, “as intuitive as possible,” as fitting into that legacy.
“Rarely do I think about music theory or a particular method,” she said. “I freestyle on the guitar until I get a nugget of a rhythmic idea, a chord or a melody. Often I’ll have compositions that have weird twists and turns.” Experimental art can seem inaccessible to more casual viewers, Halvorson said — but wrestling with its knotty structure or themes can offer a break from tired thinking.
Annie Dorsen, 45, is a theater director who pioneered what she has labeled “algorithmic theater,” which relies on computer-generated texts produced in real time for every performance — and thus she never produces the same show twice. One project is based on two bots derived from a Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault debate on human nature. Another places audience members under the stars of an inflatable planetarium while a performer recites text culled from chat rooms and message boards. The idea, she said, is to explore how tech and data are shaping the ways people come to know what they know.
“There’s a companionship between artist and audience because we experience something new together,” Dorsen said. “It’s the desire to think and feel through a problem, rather than just be entertained.”
Other winners of the 2019 MacArthur Fellowship:
●Sujatha Baliga, 48, an attorney in Oakland, Calif.
●Lynda Barry, 63, a graphic novelist and educator at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
●Mel Chin, 67, an artist in Egypt, N.C.
●Danielle Citron, 50, a legal scholar and professor at the Boston University School of Law.
●Lisa Daugaard, 55, a criminal justice reformer in Seattle.
●Andrea Dutton, 46, a geochemist and paleoclimatologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
●Saidiya Hartman, 58, a literary scholar and professor at Columbia University.
●Walter Hood, 61, a landscape and public artist in Oakland, Calif.
●Stacy Jupiter, 43, a marine scientist in Suva, Fiji.
●Zachary Lippman, 41, a plant biologist in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.
●Kelly Lytle Hernández, 45, a historian and a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.
●Jeffrey Alan Miller, 35, a literary scholar and educator at Montclair State University.
●Jerry X. Mitrovica, 58, a theoretical geophysicist and professor at Harvard University.
●Emmanuel Pratt, 42, an urban designer in Chicago.
●Cameron Rowland, 30, an artist in New York City.
●Vanessa Ruta, 45, a neuroscientist and professor at the Rockefeller University.
●Joshua Tenenbaum, 47, a cognitive scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
●Jenny Tung, 37, an evolutionary anthropologist, geneticist and professor at Duke University.
●Emily Wilson, 47, a classicist, translator and professor at the University of Pennsylvania.