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

Bukola Koiki, whose craft is inspired by her Nigerian heritage, and Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, whose writing focuses on gender issues, join a growing list of recipients from Maine since the program was established in 2006. Marzano-Lesnevich was living in Portland at the time of the nomination but has since left.

Fiber artist Bukola Koiki Photo by Chanel M. Lewis

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

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

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

Koiki was born in Nigeria and immigrated alone to the U.S. as a teenager as part of the American Visa Lottery Program. She went to college at the University of North Texas in Denton 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 teaching fellowship at the 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 has stayed.


“Portland is now one of many adopted homes in an interesting and peripatetic life,” she said.

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

“As most Nigerians will tell you, for our parents, if you are not a doctor, engineer, or lawyer, then what are you?” she said. “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 ended up in North America. Pursuing an artistic life was what I saw as my purpose, and I sought it out.”

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

“For many years, my forays into art, from drawing to graphic design, were greatly inspired by my Western education,” she said. “Pivoting to craft led me back to the origin of my artistic aptitude. Being Nigerian and a descendant of the Yoruba ethnic group and diaspora is now a massive influence that lives in harmony with my inclinations towards design thinking and thinking through making.”

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


“So, as an immigrant to the United States, my work reconciles my Western art, craft, and design education with my Yoruba traditional craft heritage,” she said. “Each shows up in my practice in aesthetically visible and emotionally invisible ways.”

Nominations for the fellowship are anonymous, so Koiki doesn’t know who submitted her name. She said her first reaction to learning she was chosen was to scream.

Artwork by Portland-based artist Bukola Koiki, who was named one of 45 United States Artists fellows and will receive an unrestricted $50,000 award. Photo by Bukola Koiki

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

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


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 University’s Kennedy School.


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

Author Alex Marzano-Lesnevich. 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 Neither,” is both memoir and history.

“One thing I find fascinating and moving is just how prevalent people we would now call transgender and nonbinary were in the past, even if we rarely, if ever, talk about them,” Marzano-Lesnevich said. “In many ways, the book is a love letter to a community across time and space and language. I think the biggest thing needed for change is being more honest about all the complexity that we erase when we talk about the past. People have transed gender for as long as there have been people, and the closer we get to policies and laws that acknowledge and embrace human complexity, the closer we get to a just world.”

Marzano-Lesnevich said it’s a challenge putting so much of their personal story out there.

“But I believe in excavating personal material in search of greater themes, commonalities and questions that can help illuminate what we’re all living through,” they said. “That’s one major aim of literature for me, no matter the genre.”

Marzano-Lesnevich’s time in Maine has ended, for now at least. They accepted an endowed professorship 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 folks.

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

The United States Artists’ fellowship program has supported nearly 800 artists and cultural practitioners with more than $38 million in direct funding over the last 17 years.

The money is unrestricted, which means fellows can use it however they wish, from supporting new work to paying down debts.

The organization’s funding comes from a wide range of philanthropic and foundation support, including from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and more.

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

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