Vermont Artist Alison Bechdel Receives a MacArthur Fellowship | Live Culture

Vermont Artist Alison Bechdel Receives a MacArthur Fellowship


  • Courtesy of Elena Seibert
  • Alison Bechdel
They say good things come in threes, though perhaps only when a trio of good things does, in fact, occur in rapid succession. Whether or not the adage is true, that's exactly what's happened to Alison Bechdel this summer.

Thing One: a six-week artist residency in a 15th-century castle in rural Umbria, Italy. Thing Two: the news that Bechdel's musical Fun Home — which had a critically acclaimed run at New York City's Public Theater last year — is going to be produced on Broadway. And no sooner had she settled in at the castle than Thing Three happened: a call from the MacArthur Foundation telling Bechdel she'd won a fellowship. 

The coveted five-year grant comes with $625,000 and affords winners plenty of time to do ... whatever they want. Explains the MacArthur website: "The fellowship is designed to provide recipients with the flexibility to pursue their own artistic, intellectual, and professional activities in the absence of specific obligations or reporting requirements."

This is not an award one applies for; individuals are nominated and selected anonymously for a MacArthur. So to say Bechdel was surprised is an understatement. 

"I really felt like — it was almost like someone hit me, like a physical blow," she said in a phone call from Umbria, where she's about to finish up her residency. "First I get to come to this amazing place, then I find out about Fun Home, then I get the call about the MacArthur."

Ever modest, Bechdel said she initially struggled with feelings that she wasn't worthy. "So many people deserve it," she said, then quickly added, "It would be criminal to have any kind of negative reaction to it. But it's pretty stunning and hard to get used to."

What's more, the MacArthur Foundation asks of recipients that they only share the news with one other person prior to the official announcement of the winners. When did she find out? "Weeks ago!" Bechdel exclaimed. "You can't tell anyone, so you feel psychotic!"

That announcement, which names 20 other winners in addition to Bechdel, comes today from the MacArthur Foundation.

Since the selection committee is anonymous, no one is available to be asked, "Why Alison Bechdel?" But the bio provided by the foundation fairly answers that question. An excerpt: 

Alison Bechdel is a cartoonist and graphic memoirist exploring the complexities of familial relationships in multilayered works that use the interplay of word and image to weave sophisticated narratives. Bechdel’s command of sequential narrative and her aesthetic as a visual artist was established in her long-running comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For (1983–2008), which realistically captured the lives of women in the lesbian community as they influenced and were influenced by the important cultural and political events of the day.

Garnering a devoted and diverse following, this pioneering work was a precursor to her book-length graphic memoirs. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006) is a nuanced depiction of a childhood spent in an artistic family in a small Pennsylvania town and of her relationship with her father, a high school English teacher and funeral home director. An impeccable observer and record keeper, Bechdel incorporates drawings of archival materials, such as diaries, letters, photographs, and news clippings, as well as a variety of literary references in deep reflections into her own past.

The Fun Home musical, based on Bechdel's graphic memoir, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama and was honored with other awards including the New York Drama Critics' Circle. When it reopens at Circle in the Square next spring, it will be completely restaged but have the same director, Obie-winning Sam Gold, according to a notice in the New York Times. Bechdel said she didn't know if any, some or all of the Public Theater cast would come to Broadway. "It's pretty much out of my hands," she said. "I'm just decorative."

Fun Home is expected to open for preview performances on April 4, 2015, and open on April 22. That's just before the deadline for Tony Award nominees at the end of April, noted the Times.

If she's felt "psychotic" at Umbria's Civitella Ranieri, Bechdel has had lots of drawing to calm her down. One thing she produced, and documented on her blog, is a 10-meter-long scroll filled with life-size drawings in charcoal. Many of them are of herself practicing strenuous yoga poses. The physical activity, she said, helped get her "out of her head." In one of the more humorous panels on the scroll, Bechdel is shown wearing a monk-like robe and washing her clothes in a sink. A downside of living in a castle, she noted: no washing machine.
One inconvenience of a 15th-century castle - FROM ALISON BECHDEL'S "SCROLL"
  • From Alison Bechdel's "scroll"
  • One inconvenience of a 15th-century castle

A glance at the foundation's website suggests there aren't many other drawbacks. The enormous 400-year-old castle is nestled among lush, green hills and, it appears, a nearby vineyard. She's one of 10 fellows from five countries in residence right now, so there's plenty of international stimulation. She's spent her time there, Bechdel said, focused on drawing. And that scroll? "People actually want it here," she said, sounding relieved about not having to ship it home. "They have plenty of room to display it."

After Bechdel finishes up her residency in Umbria, she'll travel for a week and then come home. And she's looking forward to it. "I've been working and traveling so much," she said. "I miss Vermont."

As it happens, Bechdel is working on another book, but it's not a memoir — far from it. "The book is about exercise and physical fitness," she explained. "Other things, too, but that's the main focus. The kinds of exercise trends over the last 50 years."

One can only imagine what a fitness book by Alison Bechdel will look like. "This yoga project is kind of warming me up," she said. And a five-year MacArthur Fellowship will give her plenty of time to work it out.

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