English Professor Named United States Artists Fellow

By Lindsey Piercy

A photo of Crystal Wilkinson sitting on a couch in the front yard of a home. Crystal Wilkinson didn't become a writer to obtain fame and fortune. But the accomplished author is receiving some well-deserved recognition and funding to support her craft.

"I am absolutely elated."

Wilkinson, who is also an associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky, has been named a 2020 USA Fellow by United States Artists.

Since being founded in 2006, United States Artists (USA) has awarded unrestricted monetary grants to compelling artists in various disciplines. Following a rigorous nomination and panel process, each chosen fellow is given $50,000 — which can be used for whatever means the artist wishes.

“We are so honored to celebrate the artists who are making vital contributions to the country's creative ecosystem. It is a critically important time to support the livelihoods of artists and we are ecstatic to be able to honor 50 of them this year," Deana Haggag, USA president and CEO, said in a statement. "The 2020 class is the largest cohort of Fellows we have awarded since we relocated to Chicago, and each and every one of them stands out as a visionary influence in their respective field.”

Wilkinson, award-winning author of "The Birds of Opulence," "Water Street" and "Blackberries, Blackberries," joins esteemed company. Past award winners include, poets Claudia Rankine and Rebecca Gayle Howell, senior lecturer in UK's Lewis Honors College; fiction writers Teju Cole and Annie Proulx; playwright Anna Deavere Smith; documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras; trumpeter Terence Blanchard; Houston conceptual artist Dario Robleto; and artist Ebony G. Patterson, a former faculty member at UK School of Art and Visual Studies.

"For someone like myself — a black woman from the hills of rural Kentucky who continues to write following literary norms but also strives to adhere to what Toni Cada Bambara called 'Our Great Kitchen Tradition' — this national acceptance is a grand gesture toward normalizing and celebrating diversity of literary traditions."

In recent years, Wilkinson has earned critical acclaim and several honors for “The Birds of Opulence.” The multigenerational novel, published by University Press of Kentucky, follows four generations of women in a bucolic southern black township as they live with and sometimes surrender to madness. Since publication, "The Birds of Opulence" has won the Appalachian Writers Association's Appalachian Book of the Year for Fiction, the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, the Weatherford Award for fiction and the Judy Gaines Young Book Award.

In the summer of 2018, “The Birds of Opulence” was included in Book Benches: A Tribute to Kentucky Authors, a collaboration between Arts ConnectLexArts and the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. The public art project featured 36 functional, book-shaped benches — each illustrated and themed around a different work by a Kentucky author. The benches were placed throughout Lexington to encourage reading and provide a place for rest. Wilkinson’s bench was installed along South Limestone in front of the University Press of Kentucky office.

Wilkinson’s work has earned her personal honors as well. The Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence Committee and the West Virginia Center for the Book selected her for the Appalachian Heritage Writer's Award. In conjunction with the award, she was the One Book, One West Virginia author for 2019.

“The University of Kentucky is deeply fortunate to have Crystal Wilkinson on our faculty,” Mark Kornbluh, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said. “Wilkinson is an extraordinary teacher. Our students benefit from her inspiration, her work with them in the classroom and the connections that she builds in Lexington and beyond.”

The USA Fellowship is the organization’s flagship program and is central to its mission of believing in artists and their essential role in our society. As the organization deepens and diversifies its cultural impact through new awards programs, the USA Fellowship will take on greater scope and importance — underscoring the necessity of supporting artists.

“We believe strongly that the arts are critically important to the well-being of our communities and at the heart of the arts is the individual artist,” Ed Henry, USA board chair, said. “We are proud to offer this unrestricted award to encourage artists to explore the possibilities of their practices and support their livelihoods.”

Regarding USA’s mission to recognize and reward artists for their achievements, Wilkinson said it's extremely encouraging that artists are being seen as vital contributors to society.

"I tell my creative writing students all the time that we are the truth keepers of our time. That is our duty as artists — to reflect both how the world is and how we want it to be," Wilkinson explained. "Without the artist we are lost — devoid of hope and the capacity to dream a new way of understanding and living. What we do is absolutely life-giving. So many lives have been saved by art."

Wilkinson is an associate professor in the  UK Department of English in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Further information on Wilkinson, her books and upcoming events can be found on her author website.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion three years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" two years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for four straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.

 

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