Two League of Maine artists win $50,000 fellowships from a national organization

A Levy artist and writer based in Portland who recently left Bowdoin College is among 45 creative professionals from across the country who will receive unrestricted fellowships worth $50,000 this year from United States Artists, an arts funding organization based in Chicago.

Bukola Kweke, whose craft draws inspiration from her Nigerian heritage, and Alex Marzano Lesniewicz, whose writing focuses on gender issues, join a growing list of recipients from Maine since the program was founded in 2006. Marzano Lesniewicz was living in Portland at the time of the nomination but has since left That moment.

Fiber artist Bukola Kweki Photo by Chanel M. Lewis

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

“This year, we are proud to award 45 fellowships to this remarkable group of artists and cultural practitioners whose interdisciplinary, community-centered work demonstrates the power of our country’s arts ecosystems to promote equality and offer new paths forward,” U.S. Artists Board President Ed Henry said in a statement. .

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

Koike was born in Nigeria and immigrated on his own to the United States as a teenager as part of the US visa lottery program. She went to college at the University of Texas and later completed a graduate program in applied crafts and design at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon, which led to a teaching fellowship at the Maine College of Art and Design. After leaving the state for another job, she returned during the pandemic to and has remained in a semester-long art residency at Bates College in Lewiston.

“Now Portland is one of the many homes adopted into a fun, wandering life,” she said.

Kweke said she was always the “artistic” child growing up in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, but her parents — who were “proud of an education” — didn’t see it as a profession.

“As most Nigerians will tell you, to our parents, if you are not a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer, what are you?” She said. “When it came time to go to college, I had resigned myself to training in something that might please my parents, but fate intervened, and I ended up in North America. The pursuit of an artistic life was what I saw as my goal, and I sought to achieve it.”

She first found work in graphic design, which proved creatively unsatisfying. It wasn’t until she returned to Nigeria for the first time in many years that she was drawn back into the craft and fiber arts.

“For many years, my forays into art, from painting to graphic design, were greatly inspired by my Western education,” she said. “Turning to crafts brought me back to the root of my artistic aptitude. Being a Nigerian and a descendant of the Yoruba ethnic group and diaspora is now a huge influence that lives in harmony with my inclinations towards design thinking and thinking through manufacturing.”

Koike said the Yoruba craft traditions are strongly connected to the land, ancestors, cosmic beliefs and the blessings of the natural world.

“As an immigrant to the United States, my work reconciles my studies of Western art, craft, and design with my traditional Yoruba craft heritage,” she said. “Each appears in my work in ways that are visible aesthetically and invisible emotionally.”

Fellowship nominations are anonymous, so Koike doesn’t know who submitted her name. She said her first reaction when she found out she had been chosen was to scream.

Artwork by Portland-based artist Bukola Kweke, who has been selected as one of 45 US Artist Fellows and will receive an unrestricted $50,000 prize. Photo by Bukola Kweke

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

For the money, Koike hopes to use some to expand her tools and methodology in her art practice but also to “cultivate the beginnings of generational wealth to benefit my family.”

Dig their story

Marzano Lesnevich, who grew up in New Jersey, completed law school in Boston but switched to creative writing and later taught at a small college in Pennsylvania and then at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

During that time, Marzano Lesnevich also wrote they The first book, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, was published in 2017. The following year, they joined the faculty at Bowdoin College in Brunswick where they worked until their last semester before leaving for residency, then a new job in Canada begins. in July.

Author Alex Marzano Lesnevich. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Marzano Lesnevich, who is transgender, has written extensively on transgender issues, including articles published in The New York Times, and their latest book, Both Neither, is both a memoir and a history.

“One thing I find fascinating and poignant is how prevalent people we now call transgender and non-binary people were in the past, even if we rarely talked about them,” said Marzano Lesnevich. “The book is, in many ways, a love letter to a community across time, space, and language. I think the biggest thing we need to change is to be more honest about all the complexities we erase when we talk about the past. People have switched genders for as long as there have been people, and the closer we get The more policies and laws that recognize and embrace human complexity, the closer we get to a just world.”

It’s a challenge to put so much of their personal story out there, Marzano-Lesnevich said.

“But I believe in mining personal material for themes, commonalities, and larger questions that can help illuminate what we all live with,” they said. “This is one of the main goals of literature for me, no matter the genre.”

Marzano Lesnevich’s time in Maine is over, for now at least. They have accepted a position to chair the Department of Creative Nonfiction at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

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

And they said, “(I) also plan to use some for my happily bored wish.” “It’s a very dangerous world out there, and most of us dream and make art better when we feel safe, protected, and safe. That’s what I want for everyone.”

The US Artists 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 unrestricted, which means colleagues can use it as they like, from supporting new work to paying down debt.

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

Previous Maine classmates have included pottery artist Ayumi Horie from Portland in 2015; installation artist Anna Hepler of Eastport and Portland sculptor Lauren Finsterstock in 2016; sculptor Warren Selig 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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