Photo by Cliff Coy - Bear woodcut
Photo by Cliff Coy - Bear woodcut

[Featured Image – Photo by Cliff Coy – Bear woodcut]

This is the first installment in a new series in collaboration with the Fillin’ Station, which hosts a new “Artist of the Month.” Molly Butler will be featuring each new artist at the beginning of every month.

By Molly Butler

“Your pictures are boring.”

Those were tough words for a young college student with a budding passion for photography. Cliff Coy failed his first college Intro to Photography class and tried to set his dream aside. That was over a decade ago. Today, Coy is a professional photographer. His works will be on display at the Fillin’ Station for the month of November, and they are anything but boring.

Photo by Don Lipps - Cliff Coy taking a break from installing his exhibit at the Fillin' Station
Photo by Don Lipps – Cliff Coy taking a break from installing his exhibit at the Fillin’ Station

Serving his country

Coy never planned on being an artist. Growing up in the small town of New Richland, Minn., he started dabbling in photography in high school because his best friend’s parents happened to be photographers. After failing his photography class and dropping out of college altogether, Coy tried to find his way.

“High school really didn’t prepare me for life,” he said. “I did so terrible at college. I had no idea what I wanted to do, and I slacked off a lot. When I dropped out of college after the first year, I picked up a few jobs, working at places like factories. It was the worst. Then I tried customer service type jobs, things in department stores. That was another type of worst.”

In 2006, Coy decided to join the military.

“It was scary,” he recalled. “We were in the middle of the war with Iraq, but to me it definitely seemed better than sitting around trying to figure out my life any other way.”

Coy spent 12 years with the military. During that time, he traveled extensively, including time spent in Germany, Qatar, Australia and most of the states. He rose in the ranks and worked with people he considered family.

Photo by Cliff Coy - One of the Mental Health series
Photo by Cliff Coy – One of the Mental Health series

“It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life,” he said.

Coy happened to be assigned to Public Affairs, where he became a Public Affairs Specialist. He studied at the Defense Information School (DINFOS) at Fort Meade in Maryland.

“I learned more in a week of a photography course in the military than I had in a whole course at college,” he said. “Photojournalism is pretty straight forward. Action shots. You’re not getting too fancy. It’s all about technical skills, being able to get effective quick, sharp photos. It’s a good baseline.”

For a while, Coy considered remaining within the military for a full twenty years and then retiring. The military had given him opportunities and a sense of purpose. But he hit a wall and realized he couldn’t rise any higher than Staff Sergeant, or make the larger changes he wanted to see, without a degree. He also had photos in the back of his mind, shots he’d like to take, more abstract and experimental ideas, that he knew the military wasn’t going to condone or publish. In 2016, Coy returned home to Minnesota to pursue his degree.

Photo by Cliff Coy - One of the Mental Health series
Photo by Cliff Coy – One of the Mental Health series


From Army to art

Coy spent two years at South Central College earning his associate’s degree in Multi-Media Technology, gaining knowledge in commercial photography and marketable skills. When he finished, he was full of technical knowledge, but he still had more military benefits to cover school. He decided to use them up and explore the more artistic side of photography. He enrolled at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where he is currently finishing his Bachelor of Fine Arts.

“At MSU, I was introduced to concepts and learned to put something out there that makes someone think about what you shot,” Coy said. “It’s less straightforward.”

Coy thinks about his photography a bit like a jazz musician. He needed a solid base in the technical in order to know what he could begin to play with.

“In the military, it’s a shot of a guy crawling across a rope, and there’s not anything else to it besides the shot,” Coy explained. “From an artistic perspective, I start to ask, ‘What’s going through his mind? Where’s he going?’ There are these questions you can allude to. I’ve always been a proponent of trying different variations of fields and not just sticking to one thing. It’s been nice to morph from strict photojournalism to more whimsical and meaningful photography on the artistic side.”

Lindsey Schaefer is the art coordinator and store manager at the Fillin’ Station, and she picks the Artist of the Month. She said Coy’s work was a good fit for the series.

“I’m usually looking for unique takes on various mediums,” she said. “For example, he’s a photographer, but it’s not just your average senior photo type portraits or classic landscapes. Cliff has an eye for intriguing angles and perspectives.”

Awareness through art

With his art, Coy has been working to bring attention to two areas: mental health and the natural world. His interest in mental health began in the military.

“I think everyone knows someone who has some sort of mental affliction, and a few people know what it’s like to lose people to those afflictions,” he said.

In a 3-month period in 2013, Coy lost two grandparents to cancer, and one of his buddies from the military committed suicide.

“If I hadn’t had such an outstanding commander, I could have been one of those statistics,” Coy said. “He pulled me aside, talked to me and made sure I got help. None of those things had anything to do with them being soldiers. They were personal things. That’s just as important; everybody goes through these things, and if we don’t bring them into the light and talk about them, there’s no way to fix them.”

Photo by Cliff Coy - Bear woodcut in progress
Photo by Cliff Coy – Bear woodcut in progress

Because of these experiences, Coy has turned the lens towards mental health issues.

“A lot of photography I started doing is very mental health based,” he said. “That comes from that Army side of me, seeing people struggle with these things. There’s always been a stigma around it, not talking about it. People think of people in the military as these classic, type-A people, but it’s as diverse as anywhere else.”

It’s not just internal wounds that Coy wants to bring awareness to with his work. His woodcuts in particular have been about acknowledging the natural world, and he’s currently working on a photography series focused on the watershed in the river valley. As a Minnesotan, Coy also has a love of the lakes and a growing concern about the water quality.

“Minnesota lakes did not used to be as disgusting as they are,” he said. “We used to have clear water and an abundance of native fish. The way we treat the world and the area around us, especially water, is very important.”

Like many Minnesotans, Coy has noticed first-hand the change in water quality.

“I went fishing in May during bass opener on a kayak, and I could get around the lake just fine,” he recalled. “The next week, the weeds had overtaken every single area. They’re not native weeds. You get all this farmer runoff, and it makes the plants grow like crazy. Crystal Lake feeds into the Minneopa creek and feeds the waterfall. That lake has blue algae blooms, which are quite dangerous. It can kill dogs and other species, and it stinks. When I was a kid, that Minneopa waterfall was white. Now it’s green. It’s all because of these algae blooms.”

For Coy, water is a literal link that connects everyone.

“You’ve got small creeks and ponds that run into everything and go all the way to the gulf,” he said. “It’s this massive transportation. Everything we do here affects everything down stream.”

Stop by the Fillin’ Station to see Coy’s work, which will be on display until the end of November. His photographs are available also for sale in-store.


Artist of the Month is a column by Molly Butler, in which she’ll be profiling the current displaying artist at one of MankatoLIFE’s favorite meeting spots, the Fillin’ Station in Mankato.