Area artists applying fellowship funds to explore ways people relate

Making connections

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Spoken word artist Akwi Nji of Cedar Rapids and photographer Stephanie Brunia of Oxford view the human condition through different lenses, but both seek to use their art to foster connections.

Their efforts got a huge boost, when both were recently named Iowa Arts Council Fellows. Each is to receive $10,000 to support creation of new work, a year’s access to professional development opportunities and promotional support for their careers. Three others honored are from Des Moines, Nevada and Orange City, chosen from 68 applicants.

“Iowa has a rich history of producing talented artists who have contributed to the cultural legacy of our state,” Gov. Terry Branstad said during a presentation Aug. 29 at the State Capitol.


A portion of the monetary award is to help Nji, 37, fill a void, by creating professional videos of her spoken word presentations. Visual documentation is vital in helping her market her work more accurately, she said. The funds also allow her to focus on writing and producing a one-woman show, which she plans to stage next June.

After 11 years of teaching language arts and humanities, she wanted to embark on telling stories in the moment, instead of “trying to apply what was written 100 years ago to our time,” she said.

She founded The Hook in January, a non-profit group that fosters creative storytelling and performance poetry, as well as showcasing art, music and dance. Among its programs are the ArtLOUD! multidisciplinary theatrical showcase; Drop the Mic monthly gatherings where writers can share their work with an audience; The Write to Art collaboration between three artists and three writers; and #WeAre, a summer performance poetry and monologue workshop for youths in grades 8 to 12.

She also has other projects in the works, detailed at

“My goal is to create opportunities to connect in meaningful ways with each other to foster empathy,” she said, adding that she has never aimed to be a published author. “I’m invested in the communal experience at the heart of words being spoken and heard in a public space.”


Brunia, 32, has been expressing herself through photography for a decade, working by day as a product photographer at Nordstrom in Cedar Rapids, and doing some portraiture work and her art photography on the side.

The fellowship funds are helping pay for her 30-by-40-inch prints and defray costs of two current exhibitions. She also plans to attend portfolio sharing events, which are expected to help her expand into other markets. She already has attended professional development workshops and would like to bring some to the Corridor.

Two projects on her website,, show the focus of her work, with “Thursday’s Child” looking at the aging process through her father’s transition, and “The Space InBetween,” illustrating the ungainly way people try to physically connect.

“I’m drawn to stories of how I relate to others in this fundamental human desire to connect to other people, but how awkward we are as humans in that attempt,” she said. “So it becomes a way for me to poke at some of what scares me or makes me anxious or makes me feel very human.

“I see my work as very personal but hope it hits a nerve with other people. I’m trying to get the universal truths of trying to be human and live in a world with other humans.”

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