East High School Alum Jordan Casteel Named MacArthur Fellow

Jordan Casteel, “Sylvia’s (Taniedra, Kendra, Bedelia, Crizette, De’Sean), 2018.”
Jordan Casteel, “Sylvia’s (Taniedra, Kendra, Bedelia, Crizette, De’Sean), 2018.” ©Jordan Casteel, Denver Art Museum collection
click to enlarge Jordan Casteel, “Sylvia’s (Taniedra, Kendra, Bedelia, Crizette, De’Sean), 2018.” - ©JORDAN CASTEEL, DENVER ART MUSEUM COLLECTION
Jordan Casteel, “Sylvia’s (Taniedra, Kendra, Bedelia, Crizette, De’Sean), 2018.”
©Jordan Casteel, Denver Art Museum collection
The 2021 MacArthur Fellows have been announced, and in the mix is Denver-raised, New York-based painter Jordan Casteel, whose moving portraits of everyday people garnered the artist her first solo museum show just two years ago at the Denver Art Museum, dubbed Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze.

"Today I was named a MacArthur Fellow and this honor has left me breathless — it genuinely stopped me in my tracks — laid me flat — had me confused — and brought me to tears," Casteel posted to Instagram. "While I try to embrace the reality of this moment and all the moments that have brought me here, I can’t help but see all of the people who saw my potential when I couldn’t see it for myself. As I work to make sense of it all, I just want to say THANK YOU to my nominator (whoever you are) and to all of you here with me — seeing me and the work has made this time in my life possible."

Casteel first developed her artistic talents at East High School. She received her bachelor's in art from Agnes Scott College in Georgia and her MFA from the Yale School of Art; she also studied painting in Italy. Since her DAM solo debut, she has had solos at the New Museum and at the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University; she's also showed work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"The fact that I grew up in Denver unequivocally played a role in my development as an artist and how I'm shaped as a person, through my interests and my influences as a young girl,” Casteel told Westword in 2019. “My sensibilities as an observer began here.”

And she had plenty to observe. Casteel, now 32, is the daughter of powerhouse attorney Charles Casteel and activist Lauren Young Casteel (a 2013 portrait of her mother, “Mom,” sold at Christie’s in London for more than $666,000 in 2020), and the granddaughter of educator Margaret Buckner and civil rights leader Whitney M. Young Jr.

But the main inspiration behind her work comes from her daily interactions.

"I paint the people I walk past every day, stopping to talk with some, some just to say hi to," she told us two years ago. "It’s a way of engaging with my community and sharing it with others. ... I’m in constant conversation with my subjects. They are all looking out and back at me — that’s one of the main things I’ve always asked of people. You feel it is a palpable force.”

The list of fellows who have received what's been casually dubbed the "Genius Grant" includes music critic, essayist and poet Hanif Abdurraquib; writer and radio producer Daniel Alarcón; physician-economist Marcella Alsan; computational virologist Trevor Bedford; poet and lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts; poet and translator Don Mee Choi; biological physician Ibrahim Cissé; art historian and curator Nicole Fleetwood; documentary filmmaker Cristina Ibarra; historian and writer Ibram X. Kendi; sculptor and painter Daniel Lind-Ramos; public historian Monica Muñoz Martinez; civil rights activist Desmond Meade; adaptive technology designer Joshua Miele; neuroscientist and neuro-oncologist Michelle Monje; internet-studies and digital-media scholar Safiya Noble; geomorphologist Taylor Perron; filmmaker and media artist Alex Rivera; landscape ecologist Lisa Schulte Moore; applied microeconomist Jesse Shapiro; film scholar, archivist and curator Jacqueline Stewart; historian and writer Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor; microbiologist Victor J. Torres; and choreographer and dance entrepreneur Jawole Willa Jo Zollar.

Each of these honors comes with a no-strings-attached $625,000 award.

“As we emerge from the shadows of the past two years, this class of 25 Fellows helps us reimagine what’s possible," says Cecilia Conrad, managing director of the MacArthur Fellows, in a statement announcing the honorees. "They demonstrate that creativity has no boundaries. It happens in all fields of endeavor, among the relatively young and more seasoned, in Iowa and Puerto Rico.

"Once again, we have the opportunity for exultation as we recognize the potential to create objects of beauty and awe, advance our understanding of society, and foment change to improve the human condition," Conrad concludes. 
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris