Art that explores ghostly lost histories in Syria, Lebanon, and the no-man's-land between them.
What she'll do with her $5,000 prize money. "I'm going to buy plane tickets."
"I'm going to go places the government doesn't want me to go."
In just two minutes of acceptance speech, Mary Ann Peters managed to deliver sly critiques of provincialism, xenophobia, lower-case genius, and the Genius Awards themselves.
She also became the first Genius Award winner to pledge to share some of the award money with her fellow nominees.
Peters scaled the stairs to the stage, embraced last year's winner, C. Davida Ingram, hard, and blurted out "Lord!" when she took the mic.
"If genius is perseverance and blind faith and sharing what you know and mentoring people who are chasing things that you can never understand, then I can sit with this award," she went on.
"I know what I'm going to do with the money," she said. "I'm going to buy plane tickets."
"Lots and lots of plane tickets," she said to more applause. She waited until it stopped, this applause for the idea that an artist being celebrated in Seattle needs to get out, to move around, to have a base as well as experiential reach.
"I'm going to go places the government doesn't want me to go," she smirked.
The biggest applause.
"I've thought about what that costs," she said, pivoting. "I'll still have some money left, and I want to share the rest with Dawn [Cerny] and Klara [Glosova], because we were never in competition, we're more in concert."
Peters plans to give $500 to each of her fellow nominees.
"I was blown away," Glosova said the next day, a sentiment that was echoed by Cerny. Glosova wrestled with the same problem of what she would want to do if she won, feeling that all three deserved it. "I don't know if I would have handled it that well."
"Pitting artists against each other can go south," Peters said later. "I also wanted to be an example of women being respectful of other women."
The Stranger applied the term "genius" self-mockingly to the award when it began 13 years ago. Yet awarding a single person and calling them Genius is still, to some extent, doing genius the grandiose way. Peters changed the rules and multiplied the geniuses. When she gives $500 each to Cerny, an artist who works in mediums from printmaking to performance and writing, and Glosova, a ceramicist, painter, and creator of major citywide art events, she hopes the money helps, but the symbolism means more to her.
It's not that Peters is not grateful for getting the award. It's that she's unafraid to be gracious and honest at the same time. Which is a big part of why she won.
Peters has been making art, and participating in the city's conversation about it, for 35 years. She is known for being a provocateur at events—for asking questions about who's included and excluded, and why we keep forgetting the works of the artists who came before and becoming enamored of novelties that aren't.
Meanwhile, for years her paintings were far less direct, almost withholding. They were exquisite works of visual weather, whorls implying fragments of worlds. Just from looking at the mostly-abstractions, you might or might not have known that in the background, she was exploring the ghostly lost histories of her family, which emigrated on both sides from the area that's now Syria, Lebanon, and the no-man's-land between them.
This year, she synthesized her provocative nature with the products of her hands and mind. The show was at James Harris Gallery, and it included not only paintings but also sculptures, and installation, and prints, all about her frustrated desire to witness the lives of her past and current relatives and their peers today in Syria and Lebanon. It was only in recent years that she was able to travel to those lands, and only briefly. She also won a grant to study the Arabic diaspora through archives in Paris and Mexico City, seeing human lives mediated in another way.
The resulting works swelled with specific longing and urgency. This time, you knew you were in the presence of partial, fractured, staticky portraits of Middle Eastern war, gardening, food, architecture, ancient religion, and colonization. This work was more confident and less knowing, which is a trick to pull off, maybe the maturest of tricks. She's always been good, but this is another level, and from here, she could go anywhere.
When I called Glosova and Cerny on Sunday, the day after the awards ceremony, Cerny was worried about simply making ends meet. Cerny has been a regular on awards short lists for years (including a previous round of Stranger Genius). That same morning, Glosova had been kicking herself for not having a day job. Both women know well that respect does not confer financial freedom. Peters, for example, had a banner year, which meant she made $25,000 total. All three women spoke movingly about the way that a glitzy awards ceremony could easily distract from the uglier realities of working as an artist in Seattle today.
Because of those realities, the best part of the Genius Awards, they said, was getting to know each other and the works of other nominees. All three of them are planning to read Genius literature nominee Ann Pancake's 2015 book of novellas and short stories Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley. It features a character in need of a paying job who keeps finding herself pulled into the woods instead, where she finds only bones.
Peters, Glosova, and Cerny were acquainted prior to this, but in the days before the ceremony, they hung out at Peters's studio in the International District. Glosova, who left Czechoslovakia in the 1989 student-led revolution, talked about a recent trip back, when she was horrified by the xenophobia of Central Europe in refusing Syrian migrants today. She hopes she can talk Peters into doing a joint project.