Walter Kitundu, artist in residence at Marin s Headlands Center for the... (IJ photo/Frankie Frost)

When multimedia artist Walter Kitundu rescued a one-eyed pigeon in the Marin Headlands one day this week, he called his new pet MacArthur, a name inspired by the $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius" award he'd just won.

The soft-spoken 35-year-old artist in residence at Marin's Headlands Center for the Arts was one of 25 MacArthur Fellows announced on Monday. He'll receive $500,000 with no strings attached over the next five years.

There are many strings attached to the wildly imaginative instruments he builds for San Francisco's Kronos Quartet, an association that has earned him a reputation as a rising young star in experimental music.

He's best known for creating the "phonoharp," a beautifully constructed multistringed wooden

instrument fused with a record turntable that amplifies the vibrating strings through the stylus. It looks like something Jam Master Jay would play at a Marin crafts fair.

He and the quartet played phonoharps when Kronos premiered Kitundu's composition "Cerulean Sweet" at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in 2006. They played a rendition honoring Charles Mingus at the San Francisco Jazz Festival last year.

Those successes aside, like many artists, Kitundu has to hold down a number of jobs to keep body and soul together. He was driving his battered 1984 Honda to one of them - a class in wood arts he teaches as a "distinguished professor" at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco- when he took the cell phone call from the foundation that instantly and dramatically changed his life.

"It sounded like a bill collector at first," he said Thursday morning in his capacious studio at the Headlands Center near Sausalito.

But he was soon disabused of that notion.

"At that moment I sort of froze," he recalled. "I was in disbelief. I was without words for a while. This was something I never imagined. I was crying as I parked the car."

The only catch was that he was informed of his good fortune a week before the public announcement, and he was sworn to secrecy until then. He could only tell one person, a girlfriend.

"Conceptually, everything in my life had changed," he explained. "But, practically, everything was exactly the same. That dissonance lasted a week. It was a strange feeling."

Kitundu began his career as a DJ with a hip-hop group while studying art. He's often had to decide between buying groceries or the materials he needs for one of his projects. No more.

"For an artist in this country, the things that are stressors are often financial," he said. "Oftentimes I've had to ask myself, 'Can I buy a sandwich or should I get these bolts and finish this last piece?' To have that not be an issue is overwhelming."

Dennis Bartels, executive director of San Francisco's Exploratorium, where Kitundu is on the staff as a multimedia artist, describes him as "a rare combination of original thinker and gentle soul."

Surrounding him in his Headlands Center studio are the parts for "trumpet" violins, a trumpet cello and a trumpet viola - brand new instruments he's making for the Kronos Quartet.

The group's Dennis Harrington has compared him to Leonardo da Vinci, and he is indeed something of a Renaissance man. He's now deeply involved in nature photography with a focus on birds and raptors. His latest phonoharp is inlaid with the shape of a shorebird.

On Wednesday he slipped out of the media spotlight and worked in the Marin Headlands with other volunteers banding migrating hawks. That's where he befriended MacArthur before the handicapped pigeon, now safely in a cage in the artist's studio, could become a raptor repast.

"For the entire day, being completely inaccessible was fantastic," the publicity-shy artist said with a smile. "It was very centering."

Born in Minnesota, Kitundu spent eight formative years in Tanzania, where his parents still live. His father is a retired doctor and his mother a retired nurse. He hasn't seen them in two years, and one of the first things he plans to do with his money is pay them a visit.

"They didn't know about the existence of the award," he said. "When I told them, my mom asked, 'How much is it?' Needless to say, when I told her it was for a half a million dollars, they were thrilled. The next day they were reading the news reports on the Internet and my father said it was hard to read through the tears."


Walter Kitundu speaks as part of the Design and Craft Lecture Series at the California College of the Arts at 7 p.m. Oct. 22 at 1111 Eighth St., San Francisco. For more information, call 703-9500.