Geo Soctomah Neptune of Indian Township won a $50,000 artist fellowship on Wednesday. With traditional markings tattooed on their forehead and chin, Neptune is wearing earrings made from tusk shells and porcupine quills. Photo by Sipsis Peciptaq Elamoqessik

Before celebrating a $50,000 United States Artists fellowship, Passamaquoddy two-spirit Geo Soctomah Neptune paused to remember their grandmother, the nationally famous basketmaker Molly Neptune Parker, who died in June.

“She was my teacher and mentor, and she was the head of my family and my best friend,” Neptune said. “She would have been one of the first people I would have told. But she is looking down, and I am sure she is very excited wherever she is.”

Neptune, 32, who lives in Indian Township, was among 60 artists across 10 creative disciplines to win unrestricted $50,000 cash awards from United States Artists, a Chicago-based organization that has awarded USA Fellowships since 2006 to honor artists and support their practice and development. The awards were announced Wednesday morning, though Neptune has known since November. Neptune is the third Passamaquoddy basketmaker to win the award and at least the ninth artist from Maine or with Maine roots to win. Other recipients were Gabriel and Jeremy Frey, the Passamaquoddy basketmakers, and Warren Selig, Lauren Fensterstock, Anna Hepler, Ayumi Horie, Wesley McNair and Annie Proulx.

The award honors artists for career accomplishment and ongoing creative excellence.

The 2021 USA Fellows class is the largest in the organization’s 15-year history, according to a news release. Fellowships are awarded to artists from all areas of the country at all stages of their careers. Artists are nominated anonymously and asked to submit supporting materials. A panel selects winners in architecture and design, craft, dance, film, media, music, theater and performance, traditional arts, visual art and writing.

In addition to Neptune, other artists with Maine ties who won fellowships are the writer Alexander Chee, who grew up in Cape Elizabeth and lives in Vermont, and visual artist Sharon Hayes, who graduated from Bowdoin College in 1992 and lives in Philadelphia.

Neptune won in traditional arts for their work in black ash basketry. In basketry, Neptune applies contemporary aesthetics to traditional Wabanaki forms and technique, and often uses their grandmother’s forms and tools. A basketmaker who is also interested in fashion design and wearable art, Neptune does most of their work from the sofa of their home. They plan to use the money to repair their home and build a workshop where they can take on bigger projects.

“Right now my workspace is my living room couch, and it’s difficult to keep going in bigger and bolder directions. Not having to worry about my flooring caving in or my roof caving in, which are things that are happening, is big. Now I can repair and rebuild most of my house and do a workshop in the process. It feels like a weight has been lifted,” they said.

Alison Ferris, a Maine-based curator and writer and former director of curatorial affairs for the Des Moines Art Center, said the fellowships are “one of the most prestigious awards for individual artists. It’s not something one can apply for – artists are anonymously nominated for it by experts in the field. Professionals keep an eye out for these awards because they indicate which artists are making the most relevant and impactful work of the times.”

Neptune intends to continue to work in traditional arts, honoring the tradition of their grandmother – who was named a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage fellow in 2012 – while following contemporary ideas. Neptune works in many media, including drag performance, hand-poke tattooing, and jewelry. Neptune also is interested in exploring traditional beadwork and hide tanning.

The award will allow more creative freedom to take risks, Neptune said.

“This award is going to change a lot for me. It is going to allow me to take my art to places I have only been able to imagine before, and dedicate time to pieces I have always wanted to make,” Neptune said. “I am finally at a point I can take the time and energy needed to do all that.”


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