Ethiopian-born, New York-based artist Julie Mehretu is one of the 25 fellows awarded the prestigious MacArthur 'genius' grant this year. The five year grant — awarded to "individuals who show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work" — is considered one of the most prestigious awards in the US, in terms of both public perception and its half-a-million dollar stipend.

Mehretu, 34, is described by the MacArthur Foundation as an artist "who transforms her canvases into visually spectacular excavations of multiple epochs and locales." Her work is currently being featured in the Currents series at the St. Louis Art Museum, and she is also working on a print project with Crown Point Press in San Francisco.

Having had your work somewhat entangled in legal wranglings—about right of first refusal contracts between your gallery and a collector — winning the MacArthur this year might just be that much sweeter for you, if that's possible?

Well, the MacArthur award is just a sweet deal. It knocked me off my feet. The legal issues that have come up between the gallery and other people haven't really been a big concern of mine. I haven't really given them much thought, or a lot of attention. So to me, with or without those in the past year being a part of my life, the MacArthur is just awesome. The legal issues haven't been something that I'm putting a lot of time and energy and thought into.

I think that the spirit of the award is phenomenal. It's such a kind of…my response to the committee when they called is that it was a very generous award. They corrected me in saying that they thought of it more as a kind of investment in projects, whatever they might be, so that people could have some kind of support to do the work that they want to do in the future. And to be in the kind of company that I was in, with Teresita and also other writers and scientists, it's a really…I think, it's an important thing for the arts not to be considered seriously outside of, but in a relationship to, these other worlds, because that's ultimately what the arts are.

So the MacArthur's recognition of your work is part of being placed into a wider dialogue, which the other disciplines also engage?

Yeah, it's an honor. I'm kind of really excited that people see that connection. I think art in general does that, and works in that way. I don't think art is made outside of the world we live in. It is intrinsically related to whatever dynamics exist in the world around you.

Your work, and Teresita Fernandez's work, in many ways reaches to this, and to the issues that the sciences engage, but in another medium. Do you think there's partly an affinity there, with this wider context that the MacArthur is recognizing?

It's kind of difficult to talk about, because I think that maybe there was that kind of consideration, but in the end I think it is ultimately, I mean, my understanding is that the MacArthur every year is given to different scientists and writers and maybe an artist, and it's not necessarily because of the relationship between the arts and the sciences, but more because of what the artists are engaged in making. I think that in the end the awards are based not necessarily on the relationship between the different people who receive the awards, but on the work of each individual person and their deep investigation into their work. While there are some overlaps between Teresita's work and my work, the work is so different. I think it's maybe just a support of each individual's project. And that'swhy it's such an honor, and it feels good to be put in that kind of context.

I think that for myself, I have worked really diligently and I know Teresita does, and I feel just kind of, in terms of what they look at over time and at other people, I have no idea how the process actually works, what the process is. I know that it's a long process and they kind of explained it to me on the phone, but I was too shocked by the news to really pay attention to the details…. But I think that it happens over time and I think that there's an investment there in the ideas that are happening in the work. But what I like about the award is that it's a no-strings-attached award. You don't need to keep making the same kind of work that you're making, that there's this investment in whatever it is that you want to go after as an artist. That is what I think is really phenomenal.

That begs the question: "What are you going to do with the money?"

I don't know what I'm going to do with the money, but my partner and I just bought a studio and house, a studio/apartment, and I'm in need of money for that anyway, so it came at a great time. It's a life-changing kind of award. I think for anyone to be guaranteed a certain kind of income is a phenomenal assurance. And the pressure to have to raise money in other ways is not so great, however one makes money, whether it's by teaching or by selling their work, or by working on commissions or whatever it is. That pressure is reduced with the award. It opens things up so you can take more time in making work. For me, my work takes a while to make. To have more time to investigate these thoughts or push the work in different directions, is just great — to have that support. But it's also really such a great honor, to be a part of the history of the MacArthur.