'Genius' grants include writer, artist with local ties

June 17, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

Baltimore native Michael Massing, a free-lance writer and founder of the Committee to Protect Journalists, is among the latest group of American scholars, artists and social activists to win a five-year fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation of Chicago.

The 39-year-old political journalist won $250,000 for writing "sympathetically, but critically, with clarity and tenacity" about such subjects as foreign relations, politics, drug trafficking, the press and human rights, the foundation announced Monday.

Among other recipients, New York printmaker Robert Blackburn, a long-time teacher at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, received an award of $375,000.

Mr. Massing will use some of the money to research a book that investigates the causes of America's drug problems and proposes a shift in public policy regarding drugs. A contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review, he has written for the Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, the New Republic, the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement as well as many newspapers.

"Now instead of worrying about how often I am going to be able to take the Amtrak to Washington, I'll be able to travel a lot more through this country and to Latin America as well," he said yesterday from his apartment in New York City.

"Much more satisfying than the financial aspect of the award is the fact that the long years of work have been recognized."

In 1991, Mr. Massing helped found the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based organization dedicated to international freedom of the press. He remains one of the most active board members of the non-profit, non-partisan group.

Mr. Massing grew up in Northwest Baltimore and was a student at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and Baltimore Hebrew College. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1975 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature. He received a master's degree from the London School of Economics.

Artist Robert Blackburn, 71, is the director and founder of the Printmaking Workshop in Manhattan, an organization that has helped artists with limited means follow careers in etching and lithography as well as introducing well-known artists to the medium of printmaking. The PMW has provided scholarships for minority artists and artists from Third World countries. It has also helped printmaking gain prominence in contemporary art.

An instructor and visiting artist at the Maryland Institute for many years, Mr. Blackburn received an honorary degree from the college in 1989. A collection of work from his printmaking workshop, displayed at the Institute last December, is presently touring the country.

"Nobody needs a MacArthur -- or deserves one -- more than Bob," said Fred Lazarus IV, president of the institute. "He's a wonderful teacher and technically knows his work as well as anybody in the country. . . . I think artists enjoy working with him so much because he tells people how to use the presses to express themselves without imposing his aesthetic tastes on them."

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation created the so-called "genius" grants in 1981 so that "exceptionally gifted individuals" could pursue their creative interests for five years without money concerns. Recipients do not apply for awards and are allowed to spend the money however they choose.

Over the years, MacArthur grants have gone to several Baltimore residents including historian Taylor Branch, author of "Parting the Waters"; Alan Walker, a professor of cell biology and anatomy at Johns Hopkins University, and Philip Curtin, a Hopkins history professor and one of the first Americans to teach the history of Africa.

Mr. Curtin's 1983 MacArthur award of $284,000 enabled him to expand a book he was writing about the history of diseases in Africa. "Death by Migration: Europe's Encounter With the Tropical World in the 19th Century" investigated various health crises faced by the French in Algeria and the British in India and the West Indies. It won the prestigious Welch Prize from the American Association for the History of Medicine.

"The award allowed me to change my focus, and I'm still exploring a whole new bunch of stuff that I ran into at that time," said the 70-year-old scholar. "Otherwise, I'm doing the same kind of research I said I would do when I first won the award. And I'm not retired."

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