Timothy Barrett's cellular phone rang, and not wanting to be disturbed during a staff meeting, he quickly hit the silence button.
His phone rang again. This time, he answered it, thinking one of his kids got sick at school. To his surprise, a representative of the MacArthur Foundation was calling.
Barrett, a research scientist and adjunct professor of papermaking at The University of Iowa Center for the Book, learned in September he was a 2009 recipient of a fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
The $500,000 MacArthur Fellowships, popularly known as "genius grants," are awarded to 24 individuals per year in a variety of fields who have shown exceptional originality and dedication to their creative pursuits.
Barrett, 59, is the 13th UI-connected fellow, but only the second recipient outside the creative writing community. UI anthropological linguist Nora England received the honor in 1993.
"This is a big deal to have the MacArthur Foundation effectively say this is a bona fide career track – this is a valuable way to spend your professional time," said Barrett, a paper specialist at Iowa for 25 years and a past director of the Center for the Book.
"In having your work acknowledged as a contribution to society, you're kind of getting knighted in a weird way. And that in turn helps recognize this entire emerging field of study. It's not just papermaking, but a whole range of allied specialties."
Matthew Brown, director of the UI Center for the Book, considers Barrett a perfect fit for receiving the prestigious honor despite his non-traditional specialty.
"He has an expertise that no one else in the world really has," Brown said. "He has knowledge of Japanese papermaking. He's like a human archive of that information. Further, he knows the history of European and Western papermaking. He combines craft skill with scientific skill."
Barrett earned a bachelor's degree in art communications from Antioch College in 1973 and later spent two years working with Kathryn and Howard Clark at Twinrocker Handmade Paper, Inc.; two years under a Fulbright Fellowship studying papermaking in Japan; and many years researching early European handmade papers.
Barrett joined the UI Center for the Book as its paper specialist in 1986 and served as its director between 1996 and 2002. He continues to teach courses that address the history, technique, science, and aesthetics of hand papermaking, and he oversees the Oakdale Paper Production and Research Facility.
In 2002, Barrett helped fabricate the handmade archival paper used to re-house the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution as part of the "Charters of Freedom Re-encasement Project."
Barrett will receive $25,000 every three months for the next five years from the MacArthur Foundation to be used to promote his own creative endeavors.
He intends to use the money to further his study of Western papermaking. Barrett also plans to write a new book on Western papermaking, and this award will help fund illustrations and photos, related research, and possible travel to European historical papermaking sites.
More importantly, the MacArthur Fellowship will promote Iowa's nationally known program.
"It is huge in terms of recognizing the field of book art, book studies and book history," Brown said. "What makes us unique is we conjoin the book arts with study of the historical and cultural context of book production, publishing, and reading. The visibility of the MacArthur and the strengths we already have here on the ground will make the program a national magnet and bring new interesting students to the university."