Manna from MacArthur

Winning the lottery. We've all had the new house, world cruise, shopping extravaganza fantasy, haven't we? Well, imagine winning the lottery without even buying a ticket. That's essentially what happened for Santa Fe blacksmith Tom Joyce and Los Alamos chemist My Hang V. Huynh when they each received the infamous "Call" from the MacArthur Fellowship. The Call is the Fellowship's director telephoning out of the blue to tell you that you've been awarded a large grant. We're talking half a million dollars large.

"Shocking" and "surprising" is how our local Fellows refer to that phone call. So how much time did Joyce and Huynh spend sweating over their respective applications, portfolios and interviews? None. The MacArthur is run through a "blind" nominating process and it's impossible to directly apply. The nationwide collection of nominators is kept highly anonymous so you can't even camp out on their doorsteps, cajoling them into considering you. The only eligibility requirement is to be a U.S. citizen or resident; typically, grantees don't even know they've been nominated.

A chunk of change, say $500,000.00, is a useful thing but Fellows cite freedom to pursue their work-"breathing room" as Tom Joyce says-and recognition by respected peers as more gratifying than the money itself. It was My Hang Huynh's stellar chemistry career that earned her a Fellowship-she'd been working in inorganic explosives chemistry to, among other things, stabilize the thermodynamics of synthetic substances-but 8 months after the MacArthur call Huynh left her job at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The Fellowship program describes her work as promising practical improvements from mine workers to air bags so how do the MacArthur people feel about a grantee quitting her job?

Just fine. Huynh is avidly exploring new avenues for herself and enthusiastically describes a sense of expansion and freedom about her as-yet-undetermined next steps. She was fine working in chemistry, she says, but realized it was highly focused work that left little room for people, culture or tradition. She now finds herself fascinated by food processing and preservatives, sociology and psychology and personality disorders in particular. One can only imagine the work that may come of Huynh turning her chemist's eye to these fields. Her MacArthur freedom has allowed her to spend her time reading as much as possible about her interests and thinking deeply about what next to pursue.

Is branching off into a whole new realm an expectation for Fellows or are they encouraged to dive deeper into their established fields? Neither. The MacArthur Foundation doesn't expect its Fellows to do anything. The grant comes with no strings attached. Zippo. Each year twenty to thirty individuals are granted $500,000 paid out over five years to support their work. Or pay off their mortgage, put their kids through college and keep their grandmother in purple muumuus. For artists constrained by the parameters of the typical art-for-specific-project-and-nothing-else grant, "unrestricted" is a golden word. The MacArthur doesn't even carry any reporting requirements, an incredible plus as anyone with a disinclination for paperwork can attest.

Fellows are already accomplished in their fields, ranging from visual arts, music and literary disciplines to teachers, entrepreneurs, sociologists and researchers of all kinds. The scope of possibility is overwhelming and possibility is just what the Fellowship's founders had in mind. While practicality dictates that nominees be considered for their past projects and achievements, the Fellowship's goal is to invest in potential. Grantees are chosen less for the milestones under their belts than for the signposts on their horizons.

In contrast to My Hang Huynh's budding adventure, blacksmith Tom Joyce, who became a MacArthur Fellow in 2003, is nearing the end of his five year stint. Still very much a metal man, he's used his funding to do what he's always done with more complexity and broader horizons.

It took him nearly two years just to finish the commissions he had in place when his Fellowship began but since then he's been able to pursue some of his dream projects-more experimental sculpture and an enormous, ongoing project in a Chicago industrial forge. Space and equipment concerns get a little tricky when your artwork weighs 35 thousand pounds. Joyce is also now teaching classes to young metal smiths as most existing courses were only open to those 18 and older. His MacArthur funding has allowed him to offer the classes for free. He admits those classes can seem overwhelming when projects are backing up in the studio but that disappears the minute he's working with his students in whom he no doubt sees himself-Joyce first began working with metal at a print shop in El Rito when he was 13. He took an interest in African ironwork a number of years ago and has finally been able to visit the smiths he previously knew only through correspondence. He now has a major research project and exhibition on the ironwork of 16 African countries underway.

Maybe that's the only expectation any of us have of a MacArthur Fellow-that there is simply no resting on laurels.

The MacArthur Foundation is proud of the genuine freedom their funding provides for recipients. And why shouldn't they be? We all benefit when an ambitious mind is encouraged to explore all it can. In supporting the most innovative and dedicated thinkers of our day, the Fellowship provides a virtual Petri dish for creators and problem solvers to work toward the betterment of their world which of course is our world. So congratulations, My Hang, Tom. And thank you.

MacArthur Fellows in Your Midst- A Brief List of Grantees with Santa Fe Connections:

  • My Hang Huynh, Chemist - 2007
  • Tom Joyce, Blacksmith - 2003
  • Cormac McCarthy, Writer - 1981
  • Jay Wright, Writer - 1986
  • Daisy Youngblood, Sculptor - 2003