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Newsletter: Student Spotlight: Nikaiya Lawson

Student Spotlight: Nikaiya Lawson

by Keno Catabay, Cataloging / Metadata Librarian
Nikaiya Lawson
Nikaiya Lawson
Photo by Cat Hildebrand

It is very rare for a new college student to know what they want to do once they graduate. In fact, around 20-50% of students enter college with an undeclared major, and around 75% of students switch majors at least one time.[1]  However, for one of our student employees who works in Archives & Special Collections, the decision to major in Studio Art was a no-brainer. Hailing from Las Vegas, Nevada, 21-year-old Nikaiya Lawson is a Junior and a blooming artist who uses paint as her chosen medium.

Nikaiya has always seen herself as an artist, but the life of a creative comes with its own anxieties – that much she is aware of. “Everyone has that idea of the trope of the starving artist and that frightens me,” she claims in an interview with Annie Epperson, Teaching & Outreach Librarian. “But art is the one thing that gets me up in the morning and makes me excited for life.” Through her work in libraries, which began in high school in Las Vegas, Nikaiya has discovered that pursuing passion and paying bills do not have to be mutually exclusive endeavors. In the future, when she applies for jobs in an art museum or in archives, she knows that her knowledge and enthusiasm for art will be applicable.

" is the one thing that gets me up in the morning and makes me excited for life."

Nikaiya enjoys curating artifacts, collecting history, and creating exhibits. She credits her aptitude for preserving history to her work in Archives & Special Collections at UNC, as well as at the Greeley History Museum. Through various periods of employment and internships at these two organizations, she has evolved into quite the young curator and researcher. She has worked on The Faces of Dearfield exhibit at the Greeley History Museum and has even interviewed students and hospital workers on their experiences with the COVID pandemic; these interviews were then preserved within UNC archives. With these skills, Nikaiya is well-equipped to pioneer her very own exhibit that is set to debut in the fall: Black is Punk.

What started as a woodblock print school project has evolved into Nikaiya’s full display of love for Black artists and all the mediums they encapsulate. The name, stemming from her love of punk and heavy metal music, is a retaliation against people who have many times told her that they did not expect her to listen to rock music, or even to “stop acting white.” After taking History of Rock and Roll, Nikaiya learned that Black people built the foundations of the genre, and thus the seeds of her exhibit were planted. “There’s so much rich history there that isn’t praised enough,” claims Nikaiya. “So, I want to have this exhibit open to all the Black kids on campus that feel like what they’re interested in doesn’t represent them properly.” She would like to curate all the unique interests of Black artists to show that Black life is more than what is taught at school, more than social injustice and slavery, and more than what is shown in movies and television. According to Nikaiya, it is hard to see oneself like that every single time. “Ordinary Black life,” she continues, “is not necessarily all about strife and struggle.”

With these skills, Nikaiya is well-equipped to pioneer her very own exhibit that is set to debut in the fall: Black is Punk.

Nikaiya Lawson with her print in the University Libraries administration office
Nikaiya Lawson stands in front of her carved rubber print piece entitled, "In What Country is There a Place for People Like Me."
Photo by Cat Hildebrand

For Nikaiya, her ordinary life entails painting murals for local businesses, such as at the Lavender Archive, a queer-owned, woman-owned tattoo studio in Greeley. On summer breaks, Nikaiya returns to Vegas and picks up more local clients and paints for them as well. Through her wall art, she has even been able to pay for most of her college expenses. Her real dream, however, is to create a personal show that she has had her heart set on since high school. She wants to tap into her personal experiences and put the full spectrum of her vulnerabilities on display. “I’ve had a very hard life, but I just don’t talk about it,” says Nikaiya. She talks about building an artistic language, a vocabulary of what her life has been like. “Being vulnerable, especially talking about depression and suicide and mental health and drug abuse…” she continues, gathering her final thoughts. “…I really want, when I graduate, to not really close the chapter on that part of my life but [to] accept it and find closure and move on. I feel like this show will be my closure.”

Nikaiya Lawson is on track to graduate in Spring 2023.

[1] Gordon, V. N. (1995). The undecided college student: An academic and career advising challenge (2nd ed.). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Nikaiya Lawson's piece entitled "In What Country is There a Place for People Like Me" is a response to the Elizabeth Catlett print, "My Right is a Future of Equality Amongst Other Americans." According to Nikaiya, it is meant to portray how little progress society has made to ensure the equal rights of people of color.

Elizabeth Catlett was a 20th-century African-American artist whose printmaking and sculpture focused on the experiences of African-American and Mexican women. “My right is a future of equality with other Americans” is the culminating piece in a 15 print series, The Negro Woman, in which she sought to depict a history of African-American women, encompassing both their triumphs and the brutal realities of slavery and the Jim Crow era.

Those wishing to learn more about Elizabeth Catlett and her work in UNC's collections can find more in Digital UNC.


Nikaiya Lawson with some of her works in Reflecting Back, Looking Forward
Nikaiya Lawson with some of her works from Reflecting Back, Looking Forward
Photo by Cat Hildebrand



During the Spring 22 semester, Nikaiya exhibited several works in Reflecting Back, Looking Forward, which was an open-call exhibition that asked students to submit creative works reflecting on their time during the height of the pandemic, and their thoughts toward the future ahead. Eleven students were featured in the exhibition, representing a variety of majors, including Art and Design, Education, Mathematics, Economics, and Theatre Design and Technology. Through photography, printmaking, drawing, and poetry, Reflecting Back, Looking Forward provided viewers with a glance into the experiences of students during an uncertain time.