Four Orange County artists have been recognized for their work by the California Arts Council (CAC). This quartet isn’t just being saluted for artistic talent; each is slated to receive a cash grant meant to encourage them in and reward them for their endeavors.

The CAC is awarding a total of $2.185 million to 182 recipients, all of whom applied for a 2021 Individual Artist Fellowship, a new program that’s in some ways a reboot of the council’s past practice of providing grants to individual California artists.

The Orange County honorees are Hannah Eko, Nancy Nguyen, Alicia Rojas and Keya Vance.

While the 2021 fellowships are part of an inaugural program, Mark De Sio, CAC’s director of public affairs, said “technically, it is not new.” Budgeting and providing such funds “started in 1986, and it has ebbed and flowed since according to the state’s budget.”

Anne Bown-Crawford, California Arts Council’s executive director, said the agency “is eager to celebrate, along with our fellows, this much anticipated return to directly supporting our state’s artists.”

The grant identifies and defines artists according to three distinct categories, or tiers, based on their level of experience and the length of their careers as an artist.

Those with two to four years are considered “emerging” artists fellows; 95 artists made the cut, and each will receive $5,000.

Those with four to 10 years as an artist are considered “established”; CAC tabbed 66 of these, each to receive $10,000.

Finally, the well-established (10 or more years) honorees are “legacy” fellows. Each of this year’s 21 fellows will receive $50,000.

What is the California Arts Council All About?

To learn more about the California Arts Council, its mission, its history, and the various grant opportunities available, visit

Which Counties Produced Artists Who Were Awarded Grants?

The total of 182 artists receiving grants represent 23 of California’s 58 counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Fresno, Humboldt, Kern, Los Angeles, Marin, Orange, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Siskiyou, Stanislaus, Ventura and Yolo.

Orange County’s Eko, Nguyen and Vance are in the emerging category, while Rojas is an established artist.

The sum figure of 182 is that much more impressive in that it’s just a sliver of the total number of 3,119 applicants.

What the CAC was Seeking to Support

Lilia Gonzáles-Chávez, CAC’s chair, said the individual artist fellowships “support artists from a broad spectrum of artistic practices, backgrounds, geographies and communities, whose work addresses themes such as race, diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.” If the artist’s work directly ties in with these themes and issues, so much the better.

Indeed, all four of Orange County’s fellows clearly represent racial diversity which, in turn, affords them non-mainstream perspectives that fuel their work and motivate them artistically.

In a press release issued Nov. 2, the California Arts Council noted that the program “was developed in alignment with the council’s priority to offer direct support to California’s individual artists and cultural practitioners.”

The release outlines the multi-step process through which finalists are chosen, which starts with an open call for applications. All submissions are then adjudicated by peer review panels made up of experts from the arts and cultural fields.

These experts, the release states, are “representative of California’s diverse geography; racial, ethnic, and gender identities; perspectives; and knowledge.” Their recommendations and the availability of a generous level of funding prompted the CAC to vote on the Individual Artists Fellowships at a recent public meeting.

The criteria used by CAC examined each applicant in terms of their individual “narrative,” their engagement with their community, the social impact of their work, and how they envision being able to further their goals if supported by the CAC.

Each was required to submit a description of their personal story and artistic medium, accomplishments and any long-term aspirations for their work; to spell out any personal, artistic and professional impact that financial support from CAC would fuel; to describe any strong relationships with any local or regional organizations and initiatives; and to document whatever positive social impact was generated by themselves, their work and their activities.

“We blasted notices out on social media and also to nearly 20,000 who have subscribed through our website for notices,” De Sio said. “We alerted our local partners, who put out the word through their networks, and our executive director emailed her contacts to spread the word.”

The application period opened nearly a year ago (mid-December 2020) and closed on April 1, 2021. Eko, Nguyen and Rojas said they were notified in October of their grant proposals having been accepted.

A Challenging Path from Colombia to the U.S.

Of the four Orange County honorees, Alicia Rojas is the most high-profile and has had the highest visibility – and of the four, she’s been at it the longest. Her impact can be and will continue to be felt throughout the city of Santa Ana, where she has spearheaded numerous public art projects in collaboration with countless local artists.

Alicia Rojas has used her talents as an artist to help up-and-coming artists in a career that combines the creation of what she calls “community art” with broad-based social activism. Credit: Photo courtesy of Alicia Rojas

Rojas said participating in projects such as creating murals affords her not only a means of creative expression but also a way in which to pay forward whatever support she has received, giving new, emerging, possibly younger artists a leg up.

Rojas said she knew of others who had applied for individual artist grants via social media, stating, “It was really exciting to see a program open up.” She learned of the opportunity this past January and spent three months completing the application.

The process, she said, “allowed me to communicate my voice and my journey as a community artist, reflecting back on how I got started – my highs and lows.”

The Colombian-born artist said she’d been “drawn to art all my life. I used to draw as a child and loved art class.”

In 2003, she was “going through some family trauma” when “someone gave me a set of paints.” The process of painting allowed her to express herself not just creatively, but emotionally. She said, “Opportunities weren’t easy for me because I didn’t come from a school background and didn’t have the opportunity to go to art school.” If anything, being a single mom working to support herself and her family created potential obstacles but also served to motivate her.

While her impetus was “the necessity of communicating what I was feeling,” she was motivated enough to take community and college classes in art and graphic design.

“I learned through trial and error. My career grew from that. It was very powerful to expose my vulnerability,” she said. Her website clearly delineates how she began by using art “as an exploration of self-expression and healing,” an approach that led her to paint nearly 100 self-portraits over the course of one year.

Among Rojas’ considerable résumé as someone who stirs the pot, in 2013 she and numerous fellow artist-activists worked with the Santa Ana Community Artists Commission to co-found the Santa Ana Community Artist(a) Coalition, which helps connect local artists to their communities in a collaborative process to create art that transforms public spaces, generates civic engagement and promotes personal and social change.

As the coalition’s director, Rojas has organized and coordinated numerous murals throughout downtown Santa Ana (such as “Viva Santa Ana”).

Her art and her community activism go hand in hand, united by her passion. She has lent her voice to such causes as furthering immigrant rights and socioeconomic equity, battling gentrification and protecting the environment.

Rojas’ projects during the pandemic were aimed at “highlighting the contributions of women of color in Orange County.” As if to reflect the identities of all four Orange County honorees, she emphasized the importance of self-expressive artwork “for women and people of color,” saying the work itself is self-perpetuating: “It opens up the work to other artists.”

She plans to use her CAC grant funds “to speak more to the community. For the first time, I’m going to have the time and the privilege of going from a part-time to a full-time artist.”

Rojas said the funds will allow her to continue to create community-based art, work on her residency at Grand Central Art Center, and return to Colombia to do research for future projects – her first visit there since the ’80s, when her family came to the U.S.

The Black Nigerian Experience

Hannah Eko says her literary writing and teaching work “greatly diversifies the current list of Orange County artists with my multicultural, post-colonial focus and study of the Black Nigerian experience.”

She said she has been an artist “ever since Ms. Schulz told me to stop looking at other people’s art and do my own thing at Las Positas Elementary. I have supported myself as a Coast Guard officer, college instructor, writing tutor, chat bot operator, and a speaker and workshop facilitator.”

An artist for four years, Hannah Eko defines her work as having “a multicultural, post-colonial focus and study of the Black-Nigerian experience.” Credit: Photo courtesy of Hannah Eko

This isn’t the first time she has applied for and received grant funding: “I have received an Advancing Black Arts grant, Prototype PGH small business grant, the Nationality Scholarship of the University of Pittsburgh, an International Studies Fund, and two artist grants to study in the United Kingdom and Italy.”

Eko is a writer, writing coach and life coach. Though born in London, she grew up in Southern California, saying she has “lived on both sides of the ocean and some rivers in between.” Her work has been featured in numerous magazines, including “Buzzfeed,” “make/shift” and “Aster(ix).”

She said she learned about the CAC grant program “after doing a search for art grants in California,” calling the agency “an amazing resource for artists at every level.”

The process of applying for the grant, Eko said, “was comparable to other grant and residency applications I have completed in the past. You must summarize your vision and project goals as concisely as possible.” She spent two days working on the grant application, applying knowledge gained from having completed previous applications.

She learned she had received the grant in October “through an amazing personal email that arrived just at the right time – right after feeling sad about some recent art rejection.”

Asked whether her use of the funds will contribute to or tie in with Orange County, Eko said she plans “to write a collection of short stories and a novel which heavily features the O.C. via a distinctly Black and immigrant of color lens – so yes, a less-known side of the O.C. will definitely be featured.”

Documenting Orange County’s ‘Queer History’ on Digital Video

Nancy Nguyen’s medium involves not canvas, paints and brushes, but a video camera.

“I’ve been an active filmmaker for the last three years. To support myself, I work on set as a camera assistant and media manager. Within post-production, I video edit and assistant edit for independent documentaries.”

Documentary filmmaker Nancy Nguyen has created and produced a series of short films examining Orange County’s “queer history,” primarily in Garden Grove, where her family settled after emigrating in the ’90s. Credit: Photo courtesy of Emily Cadena

Her body of work documenting “queer history” in Orange County is extensive. She notes that “Orange County, despite its conservative reputation, has had such a vibrant queer history” – a history she documented in a series of short films about gay bars in her hometown of Garden Grove.

“Gay bars have been shutting down over the past couple decades,” Nguyen said, “but the pandemic has exacerbated the rate at which this is happening. It’s critical that we support these queer safe spaces, so places like the Frat and the incredible history it holds will remain.”

The culmination of this series was “Frat House.” Completed in 2019, the film depicts the history of the eponymous gay bar.

The height of the pandemic throughout 2020 didn’t impede Nguyen, who completed the films “Creciendo” and “On Hollywoods.”

She said “Crecideno” is “a portrait of teenagehood on the grounds of a unique high school in Cerrito, Paraguay. It was made possible through a partnership between UC Irvine Digital Filmmaking, UCI Social Ecology, and Fundación Paraguaya.

For “On Hollywoods,” she collaborated with architectural writers/designers Mimi Zeiger and Victor Jones to explore queer urbanism in Hollywood and West Hollywood. The video piece, she said, was created for SCI-Arc’s “A Queer Query” symposium organized by David Eskenazi.

A still frame from Nancy Nguyen’s 2019 documentary short “Frat House” about the eponymous gay bar. Credit: Image courtesy of Nancy Nguyen

Nguyen said she had received research grants as an undergraduate, “but this is my first one out of school.” Fate dropped the CAC program in her lap when she happened across a post sharing the grant.

She spent “a couple weeks … actively thinking about and working on the application” before tackling the actual completion of the paperwork.

Nguyen notes that “unlike a lot of grant applications that are project-based, the CAC grant is interested in supporting you as an artist through unrestricted funding. This early in my career, I’m still figuring out how to talk about myself and my work in a way that feels representative, but still open to future directions.”

She was notified last month by email that she had been awarded the grant, saying that “one way or another,” it would help support her work delving into a seldom-explored area of Orange County history: “I’m still continuing research into O.C. queer history.”

But she’s also “currently working on an archival-based documentary exploring migration and passing.” The project, she said, “repurposes old mini-DV tapes of my family,” which emigrated to Orange County in the ’90s.

A Native Californian’s Skilled Use of Multiple Visual Arts

Vance did not respond to Voice of OC’s requests for an interview, so we pulled the following information from the bio posted on the website of KayJo Creatives, the company she co-founded and of which she’s the creative director:

“Keya Vance is a painter, photographer, and graphic designer from San Bernardino, California. She uses art to challenge society to have difficult conversations. Her work dramatizes the dynamic nature of relationships, both the healing and destructive power of community.

“Before working with KayJo Creatives, she co-facilitated visual arts workshops at Cal State University, Fullerton and screened her short film, “Underneath There is a Wound.” She was the primary investigator for a two-day multi-genre creative arts workshop, “Imagining Home: The Stories Photos Tell,” funded by Cal Humanities. Her workshop examined historical and contemporary representation of African Americans through photographs.”

The site notes that her bachelor of arts degree is in African American Studies and that she “has completed significant coursework in the performing arts.”

A One-Time Windfall? Or an Annual Program?

This year’s fellowships, CAC’s De Sio said, represent the agency’s “first opportunity for funding of individual artists during the course of its regular grant season cycle since 2002.” The following year, the agency suffered a 90 percent reduction to its budget, prompting it to discontinue the funding of individual artists.

He pointed out the definite link between the creation of this program and the recent windfall of funding furnished by the state, saying that “a one-time increase of $100 million for the 2021-22 fiscal year served as a significant boost for the CAC’s capacity to meet the need and demand for arts and cultural experiences benefitting diverse communities across the state.”

That boost, he said, includes $60 million for the California Creative Corps and $40 million for creative youth development.

He said the council has historically sought to, and made a priority of, offering direct support to California’s individual artists and cultural practitioners, that a nearly 20-year lack of funding had thwarted this, and that abundant resources have made possible “a historic return of direct support for artists and their creative practices.”

Whether the program becomes annual, no one can say.

“In order to reach as many artists as possible, the CAC would like to continue this program annually,” De Sio said, “but that depends on funding.”

Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at

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