MacArthur Fellows: Meet six 'genius grant' winners from the arts

'The Act of Killing' documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer is among MacArthur 'genius grant' recipients

The film director behind "The Act of Killing," the playwright of "The Whale" and the author who wrote the graphic memoir "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" were among the 2014 class of MacArthur Fellows announced Tuesday. Six arts figures each will receive the prize, commonly known as a "genius grant," of $625,000 over five years. They are:

Joshua Oppenheimer: The director of the acclaimed Indonesian genocide documentary "The Act of Killing" is considered an innovator in the documentary form. The U.S.-born, Denmark-based filmmaker, 39, is best known for his 10-year project that examined the purge of an estimated 500,000 suspected Communists in 1965-66 Indonesia.

Rather than use conventional methods such as talking heads or extensive archival footage, Oppenheimer had the people who conducted the purges re-enact them in the modern day, as the filmmaker following their activities in a chillingly fly-on-the-wall manner. The MacArthur Foundation noted Oppenheimer's flair for "illuminating the social, psychological, and emotional dimensions of controversial subjects, such as state-sponsored violence, in works that challenge the modern aesthetic of contemporary documentary cinema in both intimacy of focus and visual construct." (Read more.)

Samuel D. Hunter: Based in New York but originally from the West, the playwright has been casting his eye on the spiritual malaise of this nation. His plays, frequently set in Idaho against the backdrop of majestic mountain ranges and in towns dominated by fast food restaurants, chain stores and churches, grapple with related subjects that were fundamental to Greek tragedy: the limitation of humanity's vision, the place of religion in society and the desperate longing for relief from the alienation of modern life.

When "The Whale" was produced at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa last year, the play signaled the emergence of a dramatist capable of embodying his human concerns in networks of characters who are profoundly conflicted about releasing themselves from the prisons they call home. (Read more.)

Alison Bechdel: The innovative comic artist known for the graphic memoirs "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" and "Are You My Mother" is at an artist residency in Italy initially didn't pick up the phone when the MacArthur Foundation called. When the phone rang again, she figured it must be important. "It was crazy," she said. "It was a little garbled, then I heard the person on the other end say the words MacArthur Foundation and the world started spinning."

Bechdel is the second graphic novelist (after 2000 fellow Ben Katchor) to be presented with the award. She said the money that comes with the award — no strings attached — will allow her to "take some risks, do something new — to really plunge into my work. It's an incredible gift." (Read more.)

Terrance Hayes: The National Book Award-winning poet, like other fellows, was given the news a few days ago and sworn to secrecy — a challenge for Hayes. "I'm the one that talks," Hayes said from his home in Pittsburgh. "I've avoided my mother, people I'd be inclined to tell."

He said he plans to continue teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is an English professor. "I value teaching. It's one of the places I get inspiration, engagement."

And he was quick to turn his thoughts to Cave Canem, a nonprofit organization he's involved with that supports African American poets. "It's the most tangible thing I could think of outside of my own work," he said. (Read more.)

Steve Coleman: The MacArthur Foundation praised the 57-year-old saxophonist, composer and educator for "infusing iconic spontaneous music idioms with the melodic, rhythmic and structural components of an eclectic range of musical traditions to create a distinctive new sound."

Coleman is also known as the driving force behind M-Base, a loose musical collective that began in the '80s as well as an evolving school of creative thought. An acronym for Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations, M-Base emphasizes artistic expression of personal experiences without structural or stylistic limitations, a philosophy that continues to be heard across the spectrum of contemporary jazz.

Among the many artists influenced by Coleman and M-Base include Ambrose Akimusire, Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby, Dave Holland, Ravi Coltrane, Geri Allen and 2013 MacArthur Fellow Vijay Iyer.

"To me, Steve's as important as Coltrane," Iyer told the magazine JazzTimes in 2010. "He deserves to be placed in the pantheon of pioneering artists." (Read more.)

Khaled Mattawa: The poet and translator won admiration from the MacArthur Foundation for "rendering the beauty and meaning of contemporary Arab poetry to an English reader and highlighting the invaluable role of literary translation in bridging cultural divides."

Mattawa has written twice for The Times, most recently in October 2011. In an Op-Ed piece headlined "A Libyan American Poet Commemorates the Overthrow of Kadafi," Mattawa wrote:

What and who taught you O sons of my country to be so fearless cruel?

Him, they say, for 42 years, 42 years of him.

Who taught you to be reckless heroic?

The no-life we had to live, under him, the lives we were asked to live as dead.

Alive we want him alive, many kept shouting.

So that they could give him tastes of his own medicine?

Alive, alive!

(Read more.)

Times theater critic Charles McNulty and staff writer Chris Barton contributed to this report.

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