CHICAGO (CBS) -- Visionary artist and architect Amanda Williams has been named a MacArthur Fellow, one of three Chicagoans who received a so-called "Genius" grant this year.
Williams is among 25 people nationwide who were awarded MacArthur Fellowships, receiving $800,000 over five years – no strings attached – to further work in fields ranging from sociology and ecology to mathematics and computer science.
Williams, 48, is an artist and architect who uses color and architecture to explore the intersection of race and the built environment. Her work visualizes the ways urban planning, zoning, development, and disinvestment impact people's lives, especially in the Black community. invites the participation of the community in reimagining their space.
"Growing up on the South Side, seeing the landscape of years of disinvestment, but as a child not having language for that, it really was those environments that inspired me to first want to be an architect, and then eventually an artist. So I think I found a good way to combine beautiful interventions – whether they're paintings or sculptures, or installations – that talk about very complex subjects," she said.
Williams said color itself communicates a message.
"Color is something that everybody understands and loves," she said. "Color communicates – on the surface – culture, but also there's a beauty, there's emotion. People are very clear and confident about their favorite color; colors they don't like. But, in our society, and especially in Chicago, color always connects to race," she said.
She said it feels "surreal" to now be one of this year's MacArthur "Genius" Grant winners.
"It doesn't feel like this is really happening, but it is. So it's fantastic," she said.
Williams said she was in disbelief when she learned she was one of this year's winners.
"But also, I was coincidentally at my alma mater [Cornell University], so I was already in a moment of nostalgia; standing, looking at my freshman dormitory, thinking about how my life had changed, and this happened. So it was really a poetic moment," she said.
Williams said her MacArthur grant will help enhance her artistic work.
"That platform just expands the ability to really help people believe that singular actions can turn into ripple effects, and really make substantive change. So it's just that shot in the arm for me to say 'Keep going, dream bigger, do more,'" she said.
In 2014, she and a group of friends pained a number of houses in Englewood set to be demolished. The project was called Color(ed) Theory (2014–2015) and according to the McArthur Foundation:
With her background – including a degree from Cornell, and work that has been displayed at museums in Chicago, New York, and Venice – Williams could work anywhere in the world, but chooses to keep working in her native Chicago.
"I mean, why not? There's nowhere better than Chicago. I love this city. This city made me. This city, with its flaws and its brilliance, inspired me to be who I am. And so I feel like it's important that I give that back," she said.
The other Chicagoans who won MacArthur Fellowships this year are University of Chicago sociologist, criminologist, and social worker Reuben Jonathan Miller, for his work examining the consequences of incarceration; and jazz cellist and composer Tomeka Reid, whose work draws on her community and forges unique combinations of instruments to reimagine classic works and expand the expressive possibilities of cello improvisation.