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Congratulations to the 2021 McKnight Fiber Artist Fellows: Ka Oskar Ly & Sarah Kusa!

Fellowship Period: January 1, 2021 – December 31, 2021

"Majestic Ensemble and Ntsuab (green) – XO Collection" by Ka Oskar Ly
"Chambers" by Sarah Kusa
Sarah Kusa (photo by Rebecca Slater), detail from "Distance Meditation No. 4" by Sarah Kusa

Sarah Kusa

Sarah Kusa creates sculpture and installations dealing with themes of human vulnerability and interconnection, with forms ranging from abstract bodies to three-dimensional drawings in space. She has exhibited her work throughout the United States at venues including the Plains Art Museum (ND), DeVos Art Museum (MI), Welch School of Art and Design Gallery at Georgia State University in Atlanta (GA), Hutchinson Center for the Arts (MN), and the Phipps Center for the Arts (WI). Kusa has received the Jerome Foundation Fellowship for Emerging Artists, a Jerome Foundation Fiber Artist Project Grant, and a Next Step Fund grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council. She has participated in residencies at MASS MoCA, the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Advanced Study, and Ragdale. She lives and works in Saint Paul.    sarahkusa.com

Ka Oskar Ly (photo by Teeko.co), "Yellow - Resistance Paradise Collection" by Ka Oskar Ly

Ka Oskar Ly

Ka Oskar Ly is a queer Hmoob (Hmong) French American artist and cultural producer using fashion, art, and culture to journey into identity and community to redefine Hmoob aesthetics, cultural innovation, and community futures rooted in social change. Operating under their label Os.Couture, they are an artrepreneur who has showcased their work along with alternative, underrepresented works from their communities, through SOY New Year, Fresh Traditions Fashion Shows, Twin Cities Pride, and Hmong MN Day at the MN State Fair. A Minnesota State Arts Board grantee, a Pfund Scholarship recipient, and Twin Cities Pride Art Gallery Chairman award recipient, their work has been recognized at the Next Generation of LGBT Leaders, hosted by President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden. Little Black Shhh – Part Un and Part Deux, garment/photography collaborations with photographers Cam Xiong and Karen Nou Yang, respectively, were featured in We Are Hmong Minnesota at the Minnesota History Center.  oskarlyart.com

Gabriel Dawe

Gabriel Dawe creates work centered on the exploration of textiles, examining the construction of gender and identity in his native Mexico and attempting to subvert the notions of masculinity and machismo prevalent in the present day. His Plexus installations have been exhibited all over the world, including the Toledo Museum of Art, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. His work has been collected by public and private institutions, and featured in numerous publications including 100 Sculptors of TomorrowSculpture magazine, and the cover of Arts Fundamentals. In 2020, he was the State Three-Dimensional Artist for the state of Texas, and received a Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptors Grant.      gabrieldawe.com

T’ai Smith

T’ai Smith is associate professor of modern and contemporary art history and media studies at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.  Author of Bauhaus Weaving Theory: From Feminine Craft to Mode of Design (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), her writings have appeared in Art Journal, Grey Room, and Texte zur Kunst, and in catalogues for the Museum of Modern Art, ICA Boston, and Tate Modern. She contributed to Anni Albers, On Weaving: New Expanded Edition (Princeton University Press, 2017). Smith has been a Senior Fellow at IKKM in Weimar, Germany, and a Scholar in Residence at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, UBC. She is currently working on two book manuscripts: Fashion After Capital and Textile Media: Tangents from Modern to Contemporary Art.  t’ai-smith @ ubc

Lena Vigna

Lena Vigna is currently the curator of exhibitions at the Racine Art Museum in Racine, Wisconsin, where she curates and oversees the production and implementation of 10-15 exhibitions per year and heads the department. With particular interest in the contemporary fields of adornment, sculpture, fiber, and installation, she has curated numerous solo and group exhibitions and written several essays that explore issues relevant to contemporary art and society. Named one of the top craft curators under 50 in a non-published museum survey, she was awarded a Craft Research Fund Project Grant from the Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design for an exhibition about contemporary approaches to lace, and received an Art Jewelry Forum grant for Adornment and Excess: Jewelry in the 21st Century.     lenavigna @ RAM

Fiber art is thriving in Minnesota, and the field’s growth as an artistic discipline now includes the McKnight Artist Fellowships Program, which provides two $25,000 fellowships to be awarded each year to individual mid-career fiber artists living and working in Minnesota.

In addition to the $25,000 unrestricted award and public recognition in support of their studio work and practice, McKnight Fiber Artist Fellows receive:

  • Critiques/studio visits with three critics from the field.
  • Exhibition at the end of the fellowship period in the Joan Mondale Gallery at Textile Center.
  • Professional photographic documentation of work at the end of the fellowship period.
  • Participation in two public discussions that feature fellows and invited critics and curators.
  • Professional development support, such as attending conferences, workshops, and marketing advice for their work; plus consultation sessions from artist career consultants at Springboard for the Arts on topics of your choice.
  • The opportunity to participate in an artist residency in partnership with McKnight and the Alliance of Artist Communities.
  • Membership to Textile Center and access to Textile Center’s resources, including library of more than 32,000 books and periodicals, state-of-the-art dye lab, and artisan shop opportunities.

The intent of the McKnight Fellowships for Fiber Artists is to recognize and support talented Minnesota fiber and textile artists whose work is of exceptional artistic merit. These fellowships are in support of individual artists who are at a career stage beyond emerging. Fiber Artists, as defined for the purposes of this fellowship, are artists who use textile and fiber arts materials, processes and/or sensibilities in their artistic practice throughout the conception, execution, and resolution of their work. The fellowships are funded by the McKnight Foundation and administered by Textile Center.


Founded on the belief that Minnesota thrives when its artists thrive, the McKnight Foundation’s arts program is one of the oldest and largest of its kind in the country. Support for individual working Minnesota artists has been a cornerstone of the program since it began in 1982. The McKnight Artist Fellowships Program provides annual, unrestricted cash awards to outstanding mid-career Minnesota artists in 14 different creative disciplines. Program partner organizations administer the fellowships and structure them to respond to the unique challenges of different disciplines. Currently the foundation contributes about $2.8 million per year to its statewide fellowships. For more information, visit mcknight.org/artistfellowships.


The McKnight Foundation, a Minnesota-based family foundation, advances a more just, creative, and abundant future where people and planet thrive. Established in 1953, the McKnight Foundation is deeply committed to advancing climate solutions in the Midwest; building an equitable and inclusive Minnesota; and supporting the arts in Minnesota, neuroscience, and international crop research. mcknight.org

A focus on racial equity is at the heart of the McKnight approach to funding. Along with Textile Center, our organizations value diversity and equity, seeking to be inclusive and accessible to all applicants. We welcome and encourage applications from artists representing diverse cultural perspectives.

To learn more about McKnight Artist Fellowships, visit: mcknight.org/artistfellowships

Interview with Sarah Kusa

2021 McKnight Fiber Artist Fellow

At the heart of McKnight Fiber Artist Fellow Sarah Kusa’s work is the awareness that life can change at any moment, and that as humans, we are all vulnerable. Says Kusa, “We are waking up to this reality, collectively, during pandemic times, but this recognition hit home for me personally as a young adult when unexpected tragedy touched my family. The art I make is not about loss, but its presence as a lens I look through is undeniable. A vein of vulnerability runs through all of my sculptures and installations, reflecting my questions about being in the world as a creature with human limitations. I am curious about the precariousness of vulnerability and power — how the two closely coexist, even when one might seem to eclipse the other.” Using the vocabulary of abstraction and a spare material language, Kusa’s work investigates how we embody vulnerability and/or power through what we attempt to hold in, what we aim to keep out, and what ties we keep.


With a wide visual range, Kusa’s work takes a variety of physical forms. Of this, she explains, “For several years I have been working in three thematically related — but visually disparate — veins of exploration: abstract bodies that stand in for our own, thread installations about interconnection, and delineations of space where our bodies may or may not belong. Across this broad variety of forms, there are constants to be found: repeated physical gestures, emphasis on the human body, and materials that are themselves vulnerable in some way — that can be crushed, unraveled, or torn. Much of my work comes about through what I think of as three-dimensional drawing, in which a relatively immediate process puts a spotlight on gesture and the material itself.”


Barrier: Keep Out/Stay In (2017), pictured, was Kusa’s first piece that invited a response from a viewer’s own body. Kusa elaborates, “With torn edges and no actual ability to contain, it juts into a room from the wall at an angle, with one end tethered out to appear free-floating. The viewer chooses how to experience the barrier: the smaller-angled side gives the feeling of being penned in, while the opposite side gives the feeling of being outside a limit set for someone else. I continue to push this immersive branch of my work, with questions of connection and disconnection, limits and barriers, at the forefront of my current work. Increasingly, I see my art as a practice of empathy, and this sensibility guides me as I pursue larger, more immersive pieces.”



"Barrier: Keep Out/Stay In" by Sarah Kusa, 2017
"Unequal Pair" by Sarah Kusa, 2016
Detail from "Chambers" by Sarah Kusa, 2018

Interview with Ka Oskar Ly

2021 McKnight Fiber Artist Fellow

In a description of current work, McKnight Fiber Artist Fellow Ka Oskar Ly shares, “The Hmong language has no word for ‘art’ or ‘queer’, yet these are undeniable parts of my identity and work as a nonbinary textile and multidisciplinary artist of the Hmong diaspora.”


Ly’s work in clothing and fashion, in the context of community is celebrated in this fellowship award. “The truest nature of textile application in the Hmong cultural context is through clothing, its relationship to the body and spirit. Worn on the person brings its meaning to life. This is why my work looks to represent bodies and people, particularly to bring a direct visibility that has been perpetually erased because of patriarchy and colonization. Retaining the Hmong identity has been vital; elders remind us daily to hold on to our culture. At the same time, my parents who are Hmong Lao refugees, can rarely speak of their past, let alone our people’s history, due to trauma stemming from the American War in Vietnam and trauma to generations before that. Kinship, rituals, language, and clothing are some of the most recognizable ways we express identity and culture.”


In describing their work and influences, Ly continues, “We were long left out of history books despite our alliances to the US and France so like many minorities in this country, I never had the chance to learn about my people. Proof of our people’s journeys and existence lives through our survival. Our community stories reveal that we are a hill tribe ethnic minority from Southeast Asia and Southern China who for generations have fled persecution. Because of displacement, we carried only what was on our person. Textiles have been a lifeline; we made everything we used, transforming seeds into fiber, into clothing. When our books were burned, our women hid our stories and language by embroidering them into our clothing.”


On their creative practice as community organizer and cultural influencer, Ly speaks of their artistic practice as being grounded in community organizing that promotes fuller identity, community, and culture. “I’ve had to produce alternative platforms that would present and contextualize my work to be seen and understood as a Hmong person. This is of high importance because I faced many cultural and systemic exclusions because of my identities. Yet, coming out allowed me to more fully and proudly embrace Hmong and queer aesthetics moving more fluidly from conceptual art to wearable art, which in turn has inspired my communities to embrace more complex identities.


“My textile work is inspired by the Hmong traditions of handmade garments–making much like couture–and the vibrancy of unapologetic queerness. Channeling my ancestors, clothing as a multidisciplinary form has been a powerful tool for me to politically reclaim culture through a living lens to be our fuller selves. I center gender queerness, race, and body affirmation. Each work dives deeper in decolonizing and dismantling of gender norms, stereotypes, and biases through counter narratives that confront multifaceted tensions.”


Ly’s integrated practice of both creating the platform and the work has enabled them to mobilize their community towards creating social and cultural change. “As I move forward, my work will stay true to facilitating cultural innovation rooted in ancestral practices and centering the role of people power to fiercely build and manifest wildly imaginative community futures.”



"Hi Lo - Little Black Shhh..." by Ka Oskar Ly, Marriage Equality Collection
Hmong Goddess Collection by Ka Oskar Ly
"Femmy Boi" by Ka Oskar Ly, XO Collection

“McKnight Artist Fellowships increase the exploratory opportunity, economic stability, and productive capacity of artists by providing unrestricted cash awards and artistic and professional development opportunities for midcareer artists in Minnesota.”

— Arleta Little, Arts Program Officer and Director of Artist Fellowships