February 5, 2021

Lewis Center faculty member Lex Brown and Princeton Arts Fellow Danez Smith named USA Fellows

Lecturer in Visual Arts and Princeton alumna Lex Brown and 2020-22 Princeton Arts Fellow Danez Smith have been named 2021 USA Fellows by the United States Artists organization. Brown, named a fellow in Visual Arts, and Smith, selected in Writing, are part of the largest Fellows class in the organization’s 15-year history, as 60 artist fellows were chosen this year for their bold artistic visions and significant contributions to the field in a time of national uncertainty.

United States Artists strives to support the country’s most compelling artists and cultural practitioners. Awarded annually, USA Fellowships are given in the following disciplines: Architecture & Design, Craft, Dance, Film, Media, Music, Theater & Performance, Traditional Arts, Visual Art, and Writing. The fellows, who are practicing artists at all stages of their careers and hail from 22 states along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, go through a rigorous nomination and panel selection process. Each fellowship includes a $50,000 unrestricted cash award which artists can decide to use in whatever ways best support their lives.

In making the Fellows announcement, USA Board Chair Ed Henry noted “Artists are at the core of their communities, and as the difficulties of the past year have demonstrated, it is more important than ever that we continue to support individual artists. And as we continue to meet the challenges 2021 will bring, it is also clear that USA must remain nimble and responsive to the needs of the field…” The juror’s panel groups Brown and Smith among several other multidisciplinary organizers and activists specifically recognized as movement builders:

“In sharing their understanding of the relationship between place and power, these movement builders carve out space—literally and figuratively—for others to bring about civic change.”

Past USA Fellows include painter and visual artist Howardena Pindell (2020), documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (2010), writer Teju Cole (2015), potter Roberto Lugo (2016), multimedia artist Paul Chan (2007), dancer and choreographer Alice Sheppard (2019), fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte (2009), filmmaker Barry Jenkins (2012), master Mardi Gras suit-maker Darryl Montana (2014), poet Claudia Rankine (2016), and multidisciplinary artist Martha Rosler (2008).

lex smiling with brownin red sweater

Photo courtesy Lex Brown

Brown is an artist, musician, and writer. Working fluidly across form, her work uses poetry and science-fiction to create an index for our psychological and emotional experiences as organic beings in a rapidly technologized world. She has performed and exhibited work at the New Museum, the High Line, the International Center of Photography, Recess, The Kitchen, The Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Munch Museum. Brown holds degrees from Yale University (MFA) and Princeton University (BA), Class of 2012. She is the author of My Wet Hot Drone Summer, a sci-fi erotic novella that takes on surveillance and social justice. Consciousness, a survey of Brown’s work spanning the past 8 years, is newly available from GenderFail. Containing documentation from 46 different videos and performances as well as 33 original lyrics, it is Brown’s first book to have been acquired by the collections of the Met, MoMA, Whitney, and SFMoMA. In addition to teaching at Princeton, Brown is a College Fellow in Theater and Media at Harvard University.

During the fall semester, Brown co-taught the visual arts seminar “Artist and Studio” with Program in Visual Arts Director Martha Friedman. As a requirement for junior students earning a certificate in visual arts or majoring in the Department of Art and Archaeology’s Practice of Art Track, the course addresses current contemporary art practices and ideas. This spring, Brown continues to advise undergraduate visual arts students.

When asked how she is navigating the present moment as an artist, Brown shared:

For some, this has been a time of meditation. For others, a time of displacement and violated human rights. Most, including myself, have lost someone. But there is a beauty to the omnipotence of this unrelenting experience. There is nowhere to hide from the truth. For me, it meant releasing a crumbling foundation of negative situations and thought patterns. I rebuilt with a greater sense of alignment and renewal of solid belief that was missing for years.

danez smiling in green shirt with hands behind head

Writer Danez Smith. Photo courtesy of Danez Smith

Danez Smith is a Black, Queer, Poz writer and performer from St. Paul, Minnesota. Smith is the author of Homie (Graywolf Press, 2020), currently on the longlist for the 2021 PEN America/Voelcker Award for Poetry Collection; Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017), winner of the Forward Prize for Best Collection, the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award, and a finalist for the National Book Award; and [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014), winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. They are the recipient of fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, Cave Canem, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Smith’s work has been featured widely including on Buzzfeed, The New York Times, PBS NewsHour, Best American Poetry, Poetry Magazine, the 2020 Pushcart Prize Anthology, and on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Smith is a member of the Dark Noise Collective and is the co-host of VS with Franny Choi, a podcast sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and Postloudness.

This fall, Smith led the creative writing workshop “Writing and Performance” in which students wrote and interrogated poetry across many avenues, seeking to discover how poetry performs across different manifestations of text and body. In January, Smith joined Lewis Center Chair and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith and renowned poet Jericho Brown to read from their work and discuss poetry, survival, and pandemic reality in a highlighted virtual event during Princeton’s inaugural Wintersession.

Speaking to this unique moment of constant change, Smith shared in the fellowship announcement:

Risk. Dig. Pry open. Try. The world feels like another world to me, so I’m trying to make whatever I can, however I can, ‘cause who knows what and how and when “after this” this gonna be, what normal will look like, what it ever was. If your life is not demanding your creative energy to survive the moment, I think now is much a fertile time to break new ground, and grow your own rules and ways.

View an interactive online gallery including photos and quotes from the 2021 fellows. To learn more about USA Fellows, read the official press release (PDF) or download the Fellows announcement (PDF).


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