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#CoCASanctuary by Rohena Alam Khan

I was 32 years old. Suddenly single and alone in Seattle, a city I had no family in, and friends I would see once a year if that. I moved here from Thailand with my boyfriend. The move was brutal on both of us, financially and mentally. I struggled with the lack of sun, and mostly the lack of friendliness. Dwindling away in the darkness of the Seattle winter and freeze, I slowly made art but I had no way of exhibiting it. I lived in Pioneer Square and went to all the art walks but formed no concrete art relationships. I walked past private events at galleries while eyeing them with jealousy, wanting to belong so badly as an artist. This barrier seemed impossible to permeate for a long time.

Till a painting of mine got into a juried exhibition at Gallery 110, a gallery in the TK Arts Building. On opening night, I walked next door to CoCA, instantly drawn to the display of posters from the Women’s March in 2017. It was Shepard Fairey’s “We The People Are Greater Than Fear” that caught my eye. This represented me. This organization was giving people like myself the spotlight and a voice (as well as free posters, how ridiculously generous). I found out later that CoCA was the first brick and mortar to exhibit that poster by Shepard Fairey. The following month’s exhibit was titled “Make America Create Again” and it made so much sense. CoCA was a platform helping artists cope with the election of 2016, and it was fighting back with creativity. It was just what I needed to come to terms with the angst I was feeling at the time because of the political climate and the racist, sexist backlash of hatred it had resonated.

I signed up to volunteer and was put on the roster for a few docent shifts here and there. Sitting at the desk explaining art to visitors and chit chatting with fellow volunteers, I noticed how much I liked being surrounded by contemporary art and artists. CoCA is not a place where you flaunt your ego. We’re all volunteers, we do this because we love art and artists. We’re humble with our olive branches where toxicity has no place. I work full time in Advertising so when an opportunity arose for me to take the responsibility of managing CoCA’s social media, I hesitated for a second wondering if I would be able to do this organization justice, but I went for it anyway. It was the first of many leaps I would be taking with CoCA.

A year has passed and I can’t even begin to describe how much CoCA has helped me grow as an individual, as an artist, and as a Communication Specialist. Through CoCA, I was able to attend Seattle Art Fair last year. I went to artist talks by Oscar Tuazon and Jennifer West. Listening to these successful, working artists talk about their work processes was a truly inspiring experience.

Because of my extended social media duties, I was introduced to the behind the scene workings of the gallery. For the first time ever, I saw how a board operates, how shows are chosen, the curatorial planning, cataloging artwork, the construction and deconstruction of shows, the archival project (CoCA has existed for 37 years) and the scope of growth in marketing. My favorite part quickly became getting to know the backstories of each artwork and why they are selected to be represented at CoCA. On a regular day, there is just so much art info at my fingertips, it is truly a nerdy “artgasm” of sorts.


During the 24-hr CoCA Auction and Marathon last November, I stayed up with the artists all night making social media posts while photographing their art in progress. You truly sense how much talent surrounds you in the PNW when you see 25 artists creating artwork after artwork right in front of your eyes in a matter of hours. As an artist, you can’t help but respect their dedication to contemporary art. At the very core of what we do at CoCA is making art to support future artists and help contemporary art live on.

As a working artist myself, being surrounded by quality art and artists has helped me stay driven and focused. I had multiple exhibitions last year, and this year I have a few coming up as well, including one with fellow CoCA member artist Kamari Bright. These days I feel a constant urge to create because I know the artists I interact with at CoCA are thinking and doing the same. Our friendly competition keeps us going and keeps the Seattle art game strong.  

CoCA is growing at a rapid pace. The number of likes, views, and engagements on social media is increasing every day, as is our number of interns and visitors. And with it grows my responsibilities as the Social Media Manager, member, and artist. When I look back to consider how CoCA became my sanctuary, I am reminded about how Jody Bento (curator of the current member show “Creativity Persists”/SAM Gallery) told me how much she loved my piece “WTF II,” or how an artist I immensely look up to wants to get coffee with me over the weekend, or how I did my first Artist Talk last year with cues on public speaking from CoCA Executive Director Nichole DeMent or the bold statement CoCA made last year by supporting “Yenom Wen” by New Mystics, a show about new money in Seattle and ongoing homelessness crisis.

When I post on CoCA’s social media, I frequently use the hashtag #CoCAfam in support of the family I didn’t know I had. A community that took me in like I was a missing piece. The artists who love and support CoCA are the people you want to know because they’re the ones who will fight for you. It is with immense pride I say, I am now one of them.  

CoCA is a nonprofit that relies on donations for meaningful exhibits and engaging art experiences for all. GiveBIG is happening right now and I invite everyone to join me in supporting CoCA with a GiveBIG donation, big or small. Together, let's help the #CoCASanctuary thrive.

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