The MacArthur Foundation announced its 2018 fellows on Thursday, and this year’s class of 25 awardees is a particularly diverse group, with a strong representation of female scientists and social justice thinkers as well as arts and culture innovators with California connections.
There’s the Pasadena-based neuroscientist Doris Tsao, who’s using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)s, mathematical modeling and cell tracking to explore new scientific insights into how humans recognize faces. There’s the composer-conductor-pianist Matthew Aucoin, whose instrumental piece, “Finery Forge” (2017), brings the process of refining metal to life on two grand pianos. And there’s the Echo Park-based violinist and social justice advocate Vijay Gupta, whose Street Symphony performs live concerts for L.A.’s homeless community in downtown’s skid row.
“In some ways this is a more eclectic class than in past years,” said Cecilia Conrad, a managing director at the MacArthur Foundation, “because they’re operating from so many different fields of endeavor and so many different topics and coming at issues from different angles.”
Diversity, Conrad said, “helps to magnify the inspirational effects of the fellows program.”
This year’s crop of fellows includes 14 women, 10 men and a transgender filmmaker whose ages range from 28-60. Two of them are Native American, five are African American, two are Latinx, five are of Asian descent. They come from all over the U.S., with four born outside the country.
The highly respected, five-year MacArthur grants — often referred to as “genius grants” — are given to individuals whom the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation feel “show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future.” Recipients – who come from fields spanning science, law, education, the arts and other areas — are awarded $625,000 each, a “no-strings-attached” stipend meant to free them up to pursue new creative and intellectual endeavors.
Gupta, a violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said he was in “total shock” when the call came on his cellphone as he was pulling into the parking structure at Disney Hall for a rehearsal. “I think I shouted expletives at the committee for the first minute of the phone call,” he says, “because I was in utter disbelief. It was the wildest, possible dream.”
Gupta joined the L.A. Phil in 2007 when he was just 19 years old. Shortly after, he began giving violin lessons to homeless cello prodigy Nathaniel Ayers, who had been the subject of a Los Angeles Times piece – and subsequent book-turned-movie, “The Soloist” — by Times columnist Steve Lopez. The experience inspired Gupta not only to play music for the skid row community but to co-found, in 2011, the nonprofit Street Symphony, which offers music workshops and performs concerts at homeless shelters, county jails, treatment centers and other facilities helping incarcerated and homeless communities.
“We’re not only in these places to perform, but to build community,” Gupta says. “The role of the artist in today’s world is not only to heal and inspire, but to disrupt and provoke. One of the patterns that Street Symphony is disrupting and asking questions around is ‘why should great art only happen at the concert hall?’”
The MacArthur Foundation chose Gupta, 31, for “providing musical enrichment and valuable human connection to the homeless, incarcerated, and other under-resourced communities in Los Angeles.”
Aucoin, 28, is the Los Angeles Opera’s very first artist-in-residence – a three year position in which he’s both composing and conducting – and he’s also the co-artistic director of the roving American Modern Opera Company. He describes his music as “explosively tonal” and says his operas illustrate multiple layers of consciousness. His 2015 opera “Crossing” was based on Walt Whitman’s Civil War-era diary entries; his 2015 futuristic chamber opera, “Second Nature,” is a dystopian fairy tale aimed at young audiences and explores the effects of pollution and climate change.
During its 2019-20 season, the L.A. Opera will stage the world premiere of Aucoin’s “Eurydice,” a co-commission with New York’s Metropolitan Opera. It’s based on a play of the same name by Sarah Ruhl and is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus.
That the foundation named Aucoin a fellow for “expanding the potential of vocal and orchestral music to convey emotional, dramatic, and literary meaning,” is “a gift of time,” he said. “Time is the most precious resource for a composer – music is literally made of time and this will allow me to write the music I need to write,” he said. Aucoin is the second member of L.A.'s opera world to win a Macarthur recently. Unconventional opera creator Yuval Sharon received a grant in 2017.
Aucoin said he plans to give some of the grant money away. “I’m a big fan of the Against Malaria Foundation,” he said. “I tend to think for as long as there are people starving anywhere, then we non-starving artists should be low on the totem pole.”
Tsao, 42, was born in the Chinese city of Changzhou and grew up in College Park, Maryland. Since 2009, she’s been a biology professor at the California Institute of Technology, where her research has focused on “uncovering the fundamental neural principles that underlie one of the primate brain’s most astonishing capabilities: perception of the visual world,” according to the MacArthur Foundation.
“We’re trying to understand how electrical activity in the brain creates our perception of the visual world,” Tsao said. “Because the brain is who we are. I feel like it’s the biggest question in science — ‘how does the brain actually work?’ — and so much of our brain is dedicated to vision.”
The end goal of her research could lead to advances in the way we see.
“I think it could lead to new technology for artificial vision,” she said, “and with a better understanding of the principals that the brain uses, it could lead to cure diseases.”
Tsao said the MacArthur grant, “is less a recognition of me, personally, and more of the field of neuroscience and its huge potential -- and I want more people to be aware of it.”
Social justice fighters
The MacArthur Foundation doesn’t seek out fellows from particular professions or creative disciplines – awardees are nominated by outside individuals invited to participate in the selection process – but sometimes a class of fellows reflects the culture of the country at the time. This year’s group includes several individuals working on challenges facing marginalized communities.
“I think creativity tends to be drawn to things that seem to be important at any moment in time,” said the foundation’s Conrad. “And so if our nominators are telling us ‘here’s where some really exciting creative things are happening,’ it may not be surprising that there ends up being spaces where that’s more true.”
In the social justice realm, in addition to Gupta, San Jose-based community organizer Raj Jayadev, who graduated from UCLA, is blending community organizing principles and criminal justice reform toward developing a new model of “participatory defense” in indigent defense cases.
Accomplished female scientists are also well represented. In addition to Tsao, Sarah Stewart, a Davis, Cal., planetary scientist who received her PhD from the California Institute of Technology, has come up with a new explanation for how the moon was formed.
Several other fellows have SoCal connections. New York Playwright Dominique Morisseau wrote the book for the musical “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” which recently ended a run at the Ahmanson Theatre, and she’s written for the Showtime series “Shameless.” New York computer scientist Deborah Estrin is an L.A. native who taught for many years at USC and UCLA. New York filmmaker and performance artist Wu Tsang received an MFA from UCLA. And Cambridge, Mass., media scholar Lisa Parks was a professor in the Film and Media Studies department at UC Santa Barbara from 1998 and 2016 and has been a visiting professor at USC.
Diversity, in all its myriad forms, has long been important to the MacArthur Foundation, Conrad said. The award is meant to “reflect the breadth and depth of American creativity.”
Here’s the full list of the MacArthur Foundation’s 2018 fellows:
Matthew Aucoin Composer and conductor, New York, expanding the potential of vocal and orchestral music to convey emotional, dramatic and literary meaning.”
Julie Ault Artist and curator, New York, ”redefining the role of the artwork and the artist by melding artistic, curatorial, archival, editorial and activist practices into a new form of cultural production.”
William J. Barber II Pastor and social justice advocate, Goldsboro, N.C., “building broad-based fusion coalitions as part of a moral movement to confront racial and economic inequality.”
Clifford Brangwynne Biophysical engineer, Princeton, N.J., “using the principles of soft matter physics and cell biology to illuminate novel mechanisms of cellular compartmentalization that drive biological development.”
Natalie Diaz Poet, Tempe, Ariz., “drawing on her experience as a Mojave American and Latina to challenge the mythological and cultural touchstones underlying American society.”
Livia S. Eberlin Analytical chemist, Austin, “developing mass spectrometry-based methods to differentiate more quickly and accurately diseased from healthy tissues during surgery.”
Deborah Estrin Computer scientist, New York, “designing open-source platforms that leverage mobile devices and data to address socio-technological challenges such as personal health management.”
Amy Finkelstein Health economist, Cambridge, Mass., “formulating robust empirical methods to illuminate the hidden complexities of healthcare policy and provide data-driven guidance for future innovations in theory and practice.”
Gregg Gonsalves Epidemiologist and global health advocate, New Haven, Conn., “working at the intersection of human rights and public health research and practice to address inequities in global health.”
Vijay Gupta Violinist and social justice advocate, Los Angeles, “providing musical enrichment and valuable human connection to the homeless, incarcerated and other under-resourced communities in Los Angeles.”
Becca Heller Human rights lawyer, New York, “mobilizing the resources of law schools and law firms to defend the rights of refugees and improve protection outcomes for many of the world’s most at-risk populations.”
Raj Jayadev Community organizer, San Jose, “creating a model of grassroots collective action that enables individuals facing incarceration, their families and their communities to play an active role in their defense.”
Titus Kaphar Painter, New Haven, Conn., “highlighting the lack of representation of people of color in the canon of Western art with works that deconstruct the literal and visual structure of the artwork.”
John Keene Writer, Newark, N.J., “exploring the impact of historical narratives on contemporary lives and re-imagining the history of the Americas from the perspective of suppressed voices.”
Kelly Link Fiction writer, Northampton, Mass., “pushing the boundaries of literary fiction in works that combine the surreal and fantastical with the concerns and emotional realism of contemporary life.”
Dominique Morisseau Playwright, New York, “examining the intersection of choice and circumstance in works that portray individuals and communities grappling with economic and social changes.”
Okwui Okpokwasili Choreographer and performer, New York, “making visible the interior lives of women whose stories of resistance and resilience have been left out of dominant cultural narratives.”
Kristina Olson Psychologist, Seattle, “advancing the scientific understanding of gender and shedding light on the social and cognitive development of transgender and gender-nonconforming youth.”
Lisa Parks Media scholar, Cambridge, Mass., “exploring the global reach of information technology infrastructures and the cultural, political and humanitarian implications of the flow of information.”
Rebecca Sandefur Sociologist and legal scholar, Urbana, Ill., “promoting a new, evidence-based approach to increasing access to civil justice for low-income communities.”
Allan Sly Mathematician, Princeton, N.J., “applying probability theory to resolve long-standing problems in statistical physics and computer science.”
Sarah T. Stewart Planetary scientist, Davis, Calif., “advancing new theories of how celestial collisions give birth to planets and their natural satellites, such as the Earth and moon.”
Wu Tsang Filmmaker and performance artist, New York, “creating new conceptual and visual vocabularies for exploring hidden histories and marginalized narratives in works that collapse the boundaries between documentary and fiction.”
Doris Tsao Neuroscientist, Pasadena, “uncovering the fundamental neural principles that underlie one of the primate brain’s most astonishing capabilities: perception of the visual world.”
Ken Ward Jr. Investigative journalist, Charleston, W.Va., “revealing the human and environmental toll of natural resource extraction in West Virginia and spurring greater accountability among public and private stakeholders.”