Science & Research

Redniss ’96 receives MacArthur ‘genius’ grant

Author, illustrator of nonfiction graphic books aims to meld literary, visual flair in works

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, September 29, 2016

Lauren Redniss ’96 received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship for her experimental work blending prose writing and art in graphic novels. The grant, awarded annually, comes with a stipend of $625,000 for recipients to pursue their work further.

Lauren Redniss ’96 was sitting in her parents’ kitchen with her son when she received a call from an unknown number. Assuming it was an election survey, she picked up. “That’s not what it was,” she said.

It was a call notifying her that she had won a MacArthur Fellowship —  $625,000 to pursue her creative work.

The MacArthur Foundation awards grants every year to outstanding individuals in many disciplines. Redniss, an author and illustrator who currently teaches at the New School’s Parsons School of Design, was one of the 23 winners chosen this year.

Redniss told her parents and her husband about the news before it was released to the public. “I cried, and I didn’t want them to think something terrible had happened,” she said. “But they’re all good secret-keepers. No one divulged.”

Redniss writes and illustrates visual nonfiction books using a variety of media. “I want to create a kind of third thing that happens between the forms of prose writing and visual, something that I feel I can’t achieve with either on its own,” she said. She called this “third thing” a “fusion of fact and feeling — a kind of emotional impact.”

Unsure of her exact plans for the grant, Redniss wants to “let it sink in a little before I make any drastic moves,” she said.

Her previous projects include a book depicting the life of a traveling showgirl, brimming with newspaper clippings, drawings and photographs. Another book — complete with a cover that glows in the dark — recounts the romance and scientific achievements of Marie and Pierre Curie. Her most recent work, “Thunder and Lightning,” focuses on the emotions and perceptions surrounding weather.

Redniss strives to create “a rich tapestry of words and images” incorporating multiple elements of the book, from its physical form to the smell of the ink. “Even if you’re dealing with difficult subject matter or a complicated set of facts, it’s an experience that engages your mind,” she added. “But it’s also a pleasure, I hope.”

Redniss uses different artistic media in different books. “I try to make decisions about the artwork based on the subject matter,” she said, as she hopes to “make it feel meaningful to whatever ideas I’m trying to convey.”

Currently, Redniss is working on a book featuring an Apache community in Arizona, but she is still uncertain as to the form her illustrations will take. “I’m playing with the idea of keeping it really, really simple,” she said, adding that she is considering colored pencil.

Her visuals are often drawings, but she has also worked in many forms of printmaking, ranging from deep blue and white cyanotypes to detailed etchings. She described printmaking as a “democratic medium” because it involves multiple copies, adding that it “was used historically as an instrument of inquiry into the natural world.”

Originally drawn to Brown because of its focus on freedom in the curriculum and social engagement, Redniss still tries to incorporate “that kind of experimental approach and social conscience” into her creations, she said. Both her liberal arts education and Rhode Island School of Design classes continue to fuel her work, she added.

Dietrich Neumann, director of urban studies and professor of art and architecture, urban studies and Italian studies, was one of the professors who influenced Redniss most, she said. Though she took large architecture classes from him many years ago, Neumann recalls conversing with her in office hours several times. She was “one of those students that you remember for a long time,” he said, adding that she was “obviously bright and engaging and creative.”

Her books “show a huge range of artistic expression,” Neumann said. “I hope she’ll come back to Brown and maybe talk to the students and show her work,” he added. “That would be wonderful.”