Funlola Coker ’22g produces work in metal that reflects a long and circuitous journey as an artist, from arriving in the U.S. from Lagos, Nigeria, 15 years ago, through programs in Tennessee and New England, to SUNY New Paltz’s internationally recognized Metal Program.
Now, with an MFA degree in hand and as a 2022 recipient of the prestigious Thayer Fellowship, Coker (who uses she/they pronouns) is looking forward to building her career in the Hudson Valley, even as they lay plans to return home to reconnect after more than a decade away.
Coker began in the U.S. as an undergraduate student at Memphis College of Art in Tennessee. Following her graduation in 2011 with a BFA in Sculpture, she taught classes at different institutions such as Snow Farm: The New England Craft Program and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine. While taking a class at Haystack Mountain School in 2018, they met New Paltz Art Professor Myra Mimlitsch-Gray, who encouraged her to try SUNY New Paltz. They found that Mimlitsch-Gray and other professors offered great support as she navigated graduate school.
“There were moments of doubt about whether I could finish school, but the support system I had was incredible,” Coker said. “My professors perfected the balance of letting me do my own thing, but also encouraging me when I needed it.”
Her approach as a metalsmith reflects the path she’s taken to arrive at this point. Their work is described in her Thayer award letter as “a form of visual storytelling, inspired by culture, personal experience and history” … that is “honest, intellectually rigorous, original, and mature.”
Homesickness is a central theme. Her works frequently allude to ways of navigating the present while still living in the past, reconciling contemporary limits with a childlike filled with endless possibilities.
Their artists’ statement from “Slippery Space|s|,” her MFA graduate thesis, reads in part:
when your context for remembering is six thousand miles away? Immigrants experience this phenomenon of liminality every day. We are time travelers, aliens, and others. We live in the past while navigating the present. I construct objects and settings as portals that address this loss. We remember by way of texture. Marks and patterns can recover an obscure past. Molten pewter fills the void of carved marks. Chiseled stone becomes an anchor for weighted memories.
The shifting, slippery spaces in the vastness of our minds become
moments of solace.
As they grew and thrived at New Paltz, MFA Coordinator Matthew Friday encouraged Coker to apply for the Thayer Fellowship. The award, totaling $7,000, is given annually to SUNY students who demonstrate talent, achievement and potential as a professional artist.
“It happened so quickly. I went blind as I was reading the email that I received the award,” she said. “I put in every ounce of myself into the application, so I was extremely relieved.”
The Thayer presents a perfect opportunity for them to reset and look ahead after more than a decade of study and practice. She’ll use some of the funding to return to Nigeria, where they plans to see family and just be in a familiar and inspiring space.
“I would like to expand on the work by going back home and visiting the places that I used to go to do some more exploring around Nigeria, not just in Lagos.”
Ultimately, Coker sees her future development continuing in the Hudson Valley. They’ll use the remainder of the Fellowship to upgrade her New Paltz studio, as she embarks on her next chapter in New Paltz, paying it back to young artists as an adjunct professor.
“I’m interested and excited to teach students on campus for who art may not be their major,” Coker said. “The metalsmithing field is not very diverse, so I would love to find a way to bring in more Black students, because I know that they are there.”
You can find more of Funlola Coker’s work at her website and on Instagram @funlolacoker.
Click here to learn more about the Master of Fine Arts program at SUNY New Paltz.