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New Yorkers Rackstraw Downes, Deborah Eisenberg, Theodore Zoli Get MacArthur 'Genius Grants'

New Yorkers Rackstraw Downes, Deborah Eisenberg, Theodore Zoli Get MacArthur 'Genius Grants'

From left to right, MacArthur recipients Theodore Zoli, Deborah Eisenberg, and Rackstraw Downes, Hagen, Costanza for News

Bill Hutchinson / New York Daily News via Yellowbrix

January 26, 2010

A painter, a bridge builder and a short-story writer are three New Yorkers with a new title – “genius.”

Artist Rackstraw Downes, author Deborah Eisenberg and structural engineer Theodore Zoli are among 24 people tapped to receive $500,000 MacArthur Fellow grants.

“I still can’t quite believe it,” said Eisenberg. “It didn’t sound like a prank, but it’s so impossible that you can’t quite comprehend it all at any given moment.”

Without warning or even knowing they had been nominated, the fellows were notified this week that they’ll each get a windfall to fulfill their hearts’ desire with no strings attached.

“It was a message left on my machine,” Downes, the oldest 2009 fellow at age 69, said of learning of the award.

“I thought, ‘Goodness me, they probably want me to write an opinion on somebody who’s competing for this grant,’” added Downes. “Then I thought, ‘Oh, you never know, it might be for you.’”

Zoli, 43, said he’d heard of artists and scientists getting MacArthur grants, but never a structural engineer.

“My reaction was certainly shock, " said Zoli, the bridge technical director in the midtown office of HNTB Corp. based in Kansas City, Mo.

Born in upstate Glens Falls, Zoli helped build the Leonard Zakim-designed Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston.

He said he’s been researching building rural pedestrian bridges made of synthetic ropes. Downes said the grant means “freedom.”

“That’s very nice. That’s what you want … to be free to do your work,” said Downes, who travels the country doing hyperrealist oil paintings of offbeat landscapes like the scene under the J line el in Brooklyn.

Eisenberg has written three short-story collections, including “Twilight of the Superheroes” published in 2006.

“I plan on spending it on time,” said Eisenberg, who dates character actor Wallace Shawn. “This means less scrambling for jobs and money.”

Eisenberg, who also teaches creative writing at the University of Virginia, said that to receive such an honor at the age of 63 “could not have come at a better time.”

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