Two Maine-bound artists win $50,000 grants from national organization

A Portland-based fiber artist and writer who recently left the faculty of Bowdoin College are among 45 creative professionals from across the country who will receive unlimited $50,000 grants this year from United States Artists, an organization Chicago-based arts fundraiser.

Bukola Koiki, whose craft draws on her Nigerian heritage, and Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, whose writing focuses on gender issues, join a growing list of Maine recipients since the program’s inception in 2006. Marzano- Lesnevich was living in Portland at the time of the appointment, but has since left.

Textile artist Bukola Koiki Photo of Chanel M. Lewis

The prize honors the creative achievements of artists at all stages of their careers through a lengthy process of nomination and selection by a jury. Scholarships are awarded in the following disciplines: architecture and design, crafts, dance, cinema, media, music, theater and performance, traditional arts, visual arts and writing.

“This year, we are proud to award 45 fellowships to this incredible group of artists and cultural practitioners whose interdisciplinary and community-centered work demonstrates the power of our country’s arts ecosystems to advance equity and provide new paths,” said the president of the United States Council of Artists. Ed Henry said in a statement.

Nineteen states, plus the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and Guam, are represented among the 2023 scholars, who range in age from their early 20s to their 90s.

Koiki was born in Nigeria and immigrated to the United States on his own as a teenager through the United States Visa Lottery Program. She went to college at the University of Texas and later completed a graduate program in Applied Craft and Design at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon, which led to a scholarship to Maine. College of Art & Design. After leaving the state for another job, she returned during the pandemic for a semester-long artist residency at Bates College in Lewiston and stayed.

“Portland is now one of many adoptive homes in an interesting, traveling life,” she said.

Koiki said she was always the “artistic” kid growing up in Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city, but her parents – who were “proudly focused on education” – didn’t see it as a career.

“As most Nigerians will tell you, to our parents, if you are not a doctor, engineer or lawyer, then what are you?” she says. “By the time it was time to go to college, I had resigned myself to training in something that might please my parents, but fate intervened and I found myself in North America. Pursuing an artistic life was what I considered my goal, and I sought it.

She first found work in graphic design, which proved to be creatively unsatisfying. It was not until she returned to Nigeria for the first time in many years that she was drawn back to handicrafts and textile arts.

“For many years, my forays into art, from drawing to graphic design, were greatly inspired by my western upbringing,” she said. “The pivot to crafting took me back to the origin of my artistic aptitude. Being Nigerian and descending from the Yoruba ethnicity and diaspora is now a massive influence that lives in harmony with my penchant for design thinking and thinking through manufacturing.

Koiki said Yoruba craft traditions are strongly connected to the land, ancestors, cosmological beliefs and blessings from the natural world.

“So, as an immigrant to the United States, my work reconciles my Western upbringing in arts, crafts and design with my traditional Yoruba craft heritage,” she said. “Each appears in my practice aesthetically visible and emotionally invisible.”

Nominations for the scholarship are anonymous, so Koiki does not know who submitted his name. She said her first reaction upon learning she had been cast was to scream.

Artwork by Portland-based artist Bukola Koiki, who was named one of 45 American Artist Fellows and will receive an unrestricted prize of $50,000. Photo by Bukola Koiki

“Once I finished screaming, I read the email several times in disbelief, burst into uncontrollable tears and started praying out loud,” she said. .

As for the money, Koiki hopes to use it to expand his tools and his methodology in his artistic practice but also to “cultivate the beginnings of a generational wealth for the benefit of my family”.


Marzano-Lesnevich, who grew up in New Jersey, finished law school in Boston, but switched to creative writing and later taught at a small college in Pennsylvania, then at the Kennedy School at the University of Harvard.

Meanwhile, Marzano-Lesnevich also wrote their first book, “The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir”, published in 2017. The following year, they joined the faculty of Bowdoin College in Brunswick where they worked until the last semester before moving on to residency , followed by a new job in Canada starting in July.

Author Alex Marzano-Lesnevitch. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Marzano-Lesnevich, who is transgender, has written extensively on trans and gender issues, including essays published in The New York Times, and their latest book “Both and Ni” is both memory and history.

“One thing that I find fascinating and moving is how much of the people we would now call transgender and non-binary were present in the past, even though we rarely, if ever, talk about them,” Marzano-Lesnevich said. “In many ways, the book is a love letter to a community across time, space and language. I think the biggest thing needed for change is to be more honest about all the complexity we erase when we talk about the past. People have transgendered since there have been people, and the closer we get to policies and laws that recognize and embrace human complexity, the closer we get to a just world.

Marzano-Lesnevich said it was a challenge to put so much of their personal history out there.

“But I believe in digging into personal material looking for larger themes, commonalities and questions that can help illuminate what we are all going through,” they said. “That for me is a major goal of literature, whatever the genre.”

Marzano-Lesnevich’s stay in Maine is over, at least for now. They accepted a position to chair the creative non-fiction department at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Marzano-Lesnevich said they plan to donate some of the scholarship money to organizations that advocate for the rights and safety of transgender people.

“(I) also plan to use some for my own annoying security,” they said. “It’s a precarious world, and most of us dream and improve art when we feel safe, protected and secure. That’s what I want for everyone. »

The United States Artist Fellowship program has supported nearly 800 artists and cultural practitioners with more than $38 million in direct funding over the past 17 years.

The money is unlimited, which means scholarship recipients can use it however they wish, whether supporting new work or paying off debts.

Funding for the organization comes from a wide range of philanthropic supports and foundations, including the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and more.

Past Maine scholarship recipients include ceramic artist Ayumi Horie of Portland in 2015; Eastport installation artist Anna Hepler and Portland sculptor Lauren Fensterstock in 2016; sculptor Warren Seelig of Rockland in 2018; Passamaquoddy basket maker Gabriel Frey in 2019 and Geo Soctomah Neptune, also Passamaquoddy basket maker, in 2021.

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