Violinist, professor, pastor among 25 ‘genius grant’ winners

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Robert Vijay Gupta, the first chair violin with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and founder and artistic director of Street Symphony, plays his violin in his house in Los Angeles. | John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation via AP)

A violinist who organizes concerts for the homeless, a professor whose research is being used to increase access to civil justice by poor communities and an activist pastor are among this year’s MacArthur fellows and recipients of so-called genius grants.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation on Thursday named 25 people, including academics, activists, artists, scholars and scientists, who will receive $625,000 over five years to use as they please.

The Chicago-based foundation has awarded the fellowships each year since 1981 to people who have shown outstanding talent to help further their creative, professional or intellectual pursuits. Potential fellows are brought to the foundation’s attention by an anonymous pool of nominators. Those selected are sworn to secrecy until their names are announced.

Los Angeles Philharmonic first violinist Vijay Gupta said he was “pretty overwhelmed” when he told he was named a MacArthur fellow. He received the honor for being the co-founder and artistic director of Street Symphony, which has performed at homeless shelters, jails and halfway houses for about eight years.

“They have reminded me why I became a musician,” Gupta said of the homeless. “Artists have a role in telling the truth about what is happening in our world today.”

Gupta, 31, said he got the idea for Street Symphony while giving lessons to Nathaniel Ayers, a Juilliard-trained musician whose mental illness led to homelessness and who was the inspiration for the movie “The Soloist.”

“I grew up around mental illness,” Gupta said, noting that he has experienced it. “Our goal is to find more artists aching to have not only their artistry, but also have their human story told as well.”

Gupta, who won a spot in the LA Philharmonic at age 19, said he has no idea how he will spend the money, but that it gives him the opportunity to reflect.

“I’ve been a performer my entire life, playing the violin at 4 years and on the stage at 7,” he said. “I’ve never had a chance to sit and reflect on what my life will be like. This gives me some space to breathe, plan and look ahead.”

Another fellow is Rebecca Sandefur, an associate professor of sociology and law at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She was told of the award by the MacArthur Fellows Program’s managing director, Cecilia Conrad, who happened to be on campus and had asked to meet about an unrelated matter.

“It was an extraordinary experience and a complete shock,” Sandefur said. “It was not something you would expect.”

Sandefur’s research is promoting a new approach to increasing access to the justice system by poor communities. She created the first national mapping of civil legal aid providers, revealing which states had the resources to provide such aid and which didn’t. She also determined that cost is only one of many factors that inhibit the use of lawyers by the poor. Among the others are an aversion to lawyers, a fear of and pessimism about the fairness of the legal system, and a lack of understanding about what constitutes a legal issue.

Sandefur, 47, contends that while there has been a lot of attention paid to the problems of the criminal justice system, there hasn’t been enough attention paid to the civil side of the law.

“It affects millions of people as well,” she said. “A person could lose a house or get evicted, not see kids after a divorce proceeding or get unemployment insurance that they are owed.”

Sandefur said the award would be important in helping advance her work.

“We are going get some action on a problem that’s been around a long time,” she said.

Fellow Gregg Gonsalves, 54, is a global health advocate and assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale University. A longtime HIV/AIDS activist, his work focuses on the use of quantitative analysis and operations research to improve responses to global public health challenges. He co-founded the Global Health Justice Partnership at Yale to advance human rights and social justice perspectives in public health and legal research and teaching.

Another of this year’s recipients is Matthew Aucoin, a 28-year-old composer, conductor and artist-in-residence at the Los Angeles Opera. Aucoin composes instrumental works, ranging from pieces for solo performers to compositions for chorus and orchestra. His operatic work “Crossing,” which drew from Walt Whitman’s diary entries during his Civil War work tending to wounded soldiers, premiered in 2015.

The 2018 MacArthur Foundation fellows

Matthew Aucoin: Composer, conductor and artist-in-residence, Los Angeles Opera.

Julie Ault: New York City artist and curator.

William J. Barber II: Pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, Goldsboro, North Carolina.

Clifford Brangwynne: Biophysical engineer and associate professor, Princeton University.

Natalie Diaz: Associate Professor, Department of English, Arizona State University.

Livia S. Eberlin: Assistant professor Department of Chemistry, University of Texas-Austin.

Deborah Estrin: Computer scientist and professor, Department of Computer Science, Cornell Tech.

Amy Finkelstein: Health economist, professor of economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Gregg Gonsalves: Global health advocate, assistant professor of epidemiology, Yale University.

Vijay Gupta: First violin, Los Angeles Philharmonic, co-founder and artistic director of Street Symphony.

Becca Heller: New York lawyer, co-founder of International Refugee Assistance Project.

Raj Jayadev: Co-founder Silicon Valley De-Bug, San Jose, California.

Titus Kaphar: Painter, founder and president NXTHVN, New Haven, Connecticut.

John Keene: Writer, Department of African American and African Studies, Rutgers University.

Kelly Link: A Northampton, Massachusetts writer.

Dominique Morisseau: Playwright, Signature Theatre, New York City.

Okwui Okpokwasili: Choreographer and performer, New York City.

Kristina Olson: Associate professor, Department of Psychology, University of Washington.

Lisa Parks: Professor, comparative media studies and writing, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Rebecca Sandefur: Legal scholar, Department of Sociology, University of Illinois.

Allan Sly: Professor, Department of Mathematics, Princeton University.

Sarah T. Stewart: Professor, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California, Davis.

Wu Tsang: New York City filmmaker and performance artist.

Doris Tsao: Neuroscientist and professor of biology, Division of Biology and Biological Engineering, California Institute of Technology.

Ken Ward Jr.: Investigative journalist, Charleston Gazette-Mail, West Virginia.

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