Growing up in Winthrop, Julie Ault always was struck by the self-reliance of women on her mother’s side of the family.

They’d been raised on farms in the New Gloucester area and insisted on doing everything themselves: Baking, quilting and stuffing goose down into homemade mattresses. She also was impressed by the handmade chairs, boxes and other wares from the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, which her family liked to buy.

Those influences wouldn’t have been obvious if you’d seen Ault in her early 20s. By that point, she had moved to New York City and co-founded an arts group that took on politically sensitive subjects: The AIDS crisis, the underfunding of public schools, censorship of the arts. As a corrective to all the advertising people were used to seeing around the city, the group once hung paintings, photos and other work throughout a functioning subway train.

But the independence of her relatives stuck with Ault even as her career progressed into curating exhibits and writing books.

“It was a really great model,” the 60-year-old artist said during a recent interview. “The women made their own clothes, so you were not dependent on commercial culture. But they made things with a visual delight. I think that kind of that mindset, that learning-by-doing — I’m a big learning-by-doing person — that taking action means something. You make it, and you make it beautiful.”

Early this month, all of the beauty and delight that Ault has helped bring to the art world was recognized in a major way: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced that she was one of 25 people to win its prestigious fellowship this year.

The annual awards are commonly known as “genius grants.” Each fellow receives a $625,000 grant, no strings attached. The grantees come from a broad range of disciplines, including music, writing, law and the sciences. This year’s also include a pastor who has confronted racial and economic inequality, a chemist who is developing methods to identify diseased tissue during surgery, a psychologist who has studied the development of transgender youth and a journalist who has revealed the toll of mining on West Virginia’s environment.

Ault learned about the award before it was announced to the public. At first, the organization approached her and was vague about its intent, so Ault thought she may be asked to share her thoughts about another candidate.

“Then they called me and basically asked if I could talk confidentially and alone,” she recalled. “Then they just spill it out. They said they were calling to say, ‘You’re being awarded a MacArthur fellowship.’ The first thing I did was start crying. It’s such a surprise that that exists, that you can get a phone call out of the blue that’s going to honor your work.”

Julie Ault, right, at the Museum Tamayo, in Mexico City on Sept. 20.

Ault hasn’t decided how she’ll spend the grant, but is elated that it will give her “more independence” as she plots out her next projects.

As much as she appreciates the material support, she is equally thankful for the recognition from her peers. The foundation only awards grants to people “who show exceptional creativity,” have been nominated by a rotating pool of experts and are “on the precipice of great discovery or a game-changing idea,” according to its website.

Though Ault was born in Massachusetts, both her parents came from Maine and she moved to Winthrop at a young age. Her father, John Ault, grew up in the Auburn area and served in the military, doing tours in World War II and the Korean War. He died in 2014. Her mother, Elaine Ault, had the maiden name Tufts and still lives in Winthrop.

Julie Ault initially attended public schools in Winthrop, but they didn’t have art classes at the time. With her mother’s help, she ended up finishing high school by taking classes at the University of Maine at Augusta.

It was there that she met Tim Rollins, another artist who also moved to New York City. In 1979, they both became founding members of Group Material, a pioneering collective of artists who challenged the ways that work was commonly presented in museums and galleries.

In 1989, the group produced one its most famous works, AIDS Timeline, a temporary exhibit that conveyed the development of that public health crisis by interspersing statistics and government information with contemporary works of art, activism and pop culture.

“It was the context in which I got not my formal education, but the real education in culture and politics and how to do things as a collaboration,” Ault said of her time with Group Material. “It was a great experience to develop not only my creative voice, but write press releases and install exhibitions and work with artists and museums. It was really a very full education.”

Julie Ault at the Museum Tamayo, in Mexico City on Sept. 20.

Since Group Material disbanded in 1996, Ault has done more solo work, including writing and curating exhibits. She now splits her time between New York City and Joshua Tree, California.

But at this stage in her career, Ault said, she’s also taken increasing joy in sharing the work of other “artists who have been marginalized” and whose work “can benefit us now, in this social landscape.”

In 2000, she organized an exhibit of the work of Sister Mary Corita Kent, a Dominican nun and Los Angeles art teacher who became a fierce advocate for social change in the 1960s.

This month, Ault opened an exhibit of the painter and collage artist Nancy Spero at Museum Tamayo in Mexico City. Spero, who died in 2009, spent more than 20 years presenting female figures from different cultures and time periods in a way that foregrounded their experiences and tried to reverse the cultural dominance of male narratives, according to Ault.

“I know I’d like to work more on broadcasting Nancy Spero’s work,” Ault said. “She is a terrifically important voice for our times.”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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