A new crop of 'geniuses': 3 Chicagoans named MacArthur Foundation Fellows

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They are both widely known and known primarily within their specific areas of activity. While most of them are based in the United States (including three in Chicago),they also hail from Ghana and Canada. Ranging in age from 33 to 72, they work at universities, hospitals and non-profit organizations, as well as on stages and in art studios. And now, all 24 of them (half of them under the age of 40) have become part of that elite group known as MacArthur Fellows.

The MacArthur Foundation on Monday announced the 2015 recipients of its “genius” fellowships, which come with a five-year, no-strings-attached stipend totaling $625,000. Given to individuals “who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for more in the future,” these fellows are, according to MacArthur President Julia Stasch, “shedding light and making progress on critical issues, pushing the boundaries of their fields, and improving our world in imaginative, unexpected ways.”

Among the artists named fellows is Lin-Manuel Miranda, the 35-year-old playwright, composer and performer whose show “Hamilton,” a hip-hop history of the founding father, has become the hottest new musical on Broadway, and whose previous musical, “In the Heights,” received the 2008 Tony Award for best musical and has been produced in Chicago.

Other award winners include the New York-based set designer Mimi Lien, whose work was seen at the Goodman Theater, with its production of “The World of Extreme Happiness”; puppet master Basil Twist; painter Nicole Eisenman; and tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance (who got the call about the award while standing on a subway platform). The Washington-D.C.-based journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates (soon to appear at the Chicago Humanities Festival), whose new book “Between the Wolf and Me” looks at what has physically affected African-American lives, from slavery onward, has been named a fellow, as has Marina Rustow, a historian at Princeton University who has studied documents from medieval Muslim and Jewish communities in Cairo, Egypt.

The three Chicago recipients include: LaToya Ruby Frazier, 33, a photographer and video artist who is an assistant professor in the Department of Photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; John Novembre, 37, a computational biologist and associate professor in the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Chicago, and Juan Salgado, 46, a community leader who is president and CEO of Instituto del Progreso Latin, based in the city’s Little Village neighborhood.

Frazier, who grew up in Braddock, Pennsylvania, began taking photographs at the age of 16 and still works with a 35 mm camera. Part of an African-American working-class community living in the shadow of abandoned steel mills, she is best known for “The Notion of Family,” a black-and-white series in which she used raw portraits of her mother, grandmother and herself to chronicle the devastating effects of disinvestment and demographic decline. Other photos capture the wider ranging transformations of her community after years of economic collapse.

Inspired by the Depression-era photos of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans (but determined that it would not be “outsiders” who took the pictures), Frazier, who was a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow in Creative Arts, will have her first solo exhibition in France when “Performing Social Landscapes” opens Oct. 16 at the Carre de l’Art in Nimes. She hopes to establish a foundation that will deal with the many social ills she has documented in her photographs.

Novembre’s work sheds new light on human evolutionary history, population structure and migration, and the causes of genetic diseases. He also has explored aspects of recombination — the fundamental biological process by which genetic material from parents is combined in an individual before being passed to offspring.

“We develop analysis algorithms that we have applied most extensively to study the genetics and geography of European populations,” said Novembre. “Because human genetics, evolutionary history, and disease are intertwined, our work informs efforts to understand specific heritable diseases. In other work, we have devised algorithms to estimate recombination rates, to understand avian migration patterns, to illuminate the genetic history of dog domestication, and to analyze experimental evolution studies with fruit flies.”

Novembre noted: “When I told my long-term girlfriend about the fellowship, she kept repeatedly asking, ‘What? What?,’ and then, when it finally sunk in, she was overjoyed for me and gave me a big hug and kiss. It was a great moment.”Salgado is a community organizer who has developed a model for fast-tracking those with lower levels of education and language proficiency. Working in collaboration with community colleges, he sees that such potential workers get specialized skill-training and intensive language training, preparing them for well-paying jobs in the health care industry and manufacturing.

“For me, urban development is not about building stadiums,” said Salgado. “It’s about developing human talent. I hope the fellowship will enable us to make a bigger impact with our work — to have the model adapted by others, and to take our practices in the field beyond our community.”

When Salgado first learned of his fellowship he said: “I fell on my knees in disbelief. Then I told my wife, who has always supported my dreams. And her response was: ‘Oh, no. Is this going to make you crazier than ever about what you want to do?’ And I said ‘Yes.’ “

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