Hamilton native wins MacArthur 'Genius Grant' fellowship: What she'll do next

·5 min read

Oct. 23—Hamilton native Nicole Fleetwood was in a New York taxi when she got an exciting — but secret — phone call. She had won a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, which comes with a $625,000 "Genius Grant" to support her work as an art curator, historian and writer on the topic of prisons.

She didn't even know she had been nominated. And she wasn't allowed to tell anyone for weeks.

"It came as a huge surprise, huge honor," she said. "I cried. I screamed."

These are heady times for Fleetwood, 48, a 1990 Hamilton High School graduate who then was known as Nicole Hickman. She later took the last name of the maternal line of her several-generation-Hamilton family, including her late grandmother Barbara Jean Fleetwood and mother Eleanor Fleetwood Wilson, who now lives in Houston. Fleetwood's father, Billy Hickman, lives in Oxford.

The Miami University graduate won the fellowship largely because of a celebrated book and art exhibition with the same name — "Marking Time: Art in the Era of Mass Incarceration."

Her book won the National Book Critics Circle Award this spring. It and the art exhibition focus on works by artists, most of whom were incarcerated. About a third are by people who have not been jailed, yet deal with prison-related issues, such as mass-incarceration.

The art exhibition she curated opened last year at MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) PS1, and The New Yorker magazine named it among the best art shows of 2020. It's now in Birmingham, Ala. In April, it will open at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.

Fleetwood in July became the first-ever James Weldon Johnson Professor at New York University. Johnson was the first Black professor hired by NYU, in 1934, and wrote the song, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which now is informally known as the "African-American National Anthem."

Two of the artists Fleetwood highlights are Ohioans who were wrongfully incarcerated for two decades each: — Roger Dean Gillispie of Fairborn was convicted of rape in 1991, and was freed three days before Christmas of 2011 after work by the Ohio Innocence Project. While imprisoned, Gillispie made beautiful miniature art, such of tiny restaurants and Airstream-like trailers from such items as cigarette packs. — Tyra Patterson of Dayton was sentenced in 1994 to 43-years-to-life for a murder there. She was freed on Christmas of 2017 after advocacy by the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. Last October, Patterson gave the commencement address for the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

"In my book, I don't emphasize innocence over guilt, because I think all people in prison are people, and I center on their humanity," Fleetwood said. "This idea of locking people up and throwing away the key is a system that continues to marginalize the most marginalized people and often does not create a pathway for people to return to communities. My project is a critique of that."

She highlights work of people who have been imprisoned alongside that of other artists, partly because she wanted to foster conversation between the two groups of creators.

"There's currently over 2 million in prison, and so it's such a common experience among so many people, especially Black, Latinx and poor white people, that we really need to talk about the toll of incarceration and how it has shaped our culture."

Fleetwood avoids using words like 'inmate' and 'offender' to instead focus on the artists and their work.

Her attraction the topic dates to her years as a Hamilton teen in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when there was a ratcheting-up of tougher sentencing laws.

"I saw that happen in my own community," Fleetwood said. "A lot of kids I went to school with ended up getting life or double-life. My cousin at the age of 18 was sentenced to life, and other relatives have been impacted by criminalization and imprisonment."

Because of politics surrounding the crack-cocaine epidemic at that time, "people were demonized," she said, "Entire communities, especially communities of color, were criminalized and pathologized, and over-policed."

Among negative impacts of prisons, she said, are, "continuing to reproduce poverty in certain communities, the racial disparities of prisons." That even includes the health risks in prisons, during the COVID-19 pandemic because of inability to implement physical distancing and lack of hygiene — "especially in Ohio last year. It was an epicenter for coronavirus spread."

Fleetwood herself is not an artist, but she gained an appreciation for music, performing arts and visual arts growing up in Hamilton's Second Ward neighborhood, also known as Riverview. Her grandmother was choir director at Mount Ebal United Holy Church about five decades. The funk/soul band Roger Troutman & Zapp practiced in her grandmother's Beckett Street basement. Her uncle, Sherman Fleetwood, played bass for Zapp.

Fleetwood participated in high school theater and graduated in the top 20 of her class. She also was on the Homecoming court before attending Miami on full scholarship. During her junior year abroad in the Netherlands, she studied human-rights law.

She moved to California, where she worked as a public-school teacher and in community youth centers, directing an arts and education program for youth in San Francisco.

She earned a master's and Ph.D. in modern thought and literature from Stanford University. She taught American studies and art history at Rutgers University for 16 years and wrote three books while there.

Miami President Gregory Crawford sent her a letter, telling her: "We are proud to have exceptionally creative, talented leaders like you who we can count among the Miami family."


Fleetwood's exhibition will be in Cincinnati April through August

Nicole Fleetwood's art exhibition, "Marking Time: Art in the Era of Mass Incarceration," which received accolades after opening last year in New York at MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) PS1, will make its third stop from April to August at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

The show, which The New Yorker magazine ranked among the best art shows of 2020, now is in Birmingham, Ala.

"For me, it's a very special homecoming," Fleetwood said.

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