3rd Quarter, 2008
Law School Scholarship Winner
Nichole Rapier is attending the University of California-Davis School of Law.
A Portion of Nichole’s Winning Essay:
Friends and family members were shocked when I told them of my intent to apply to law school. They know me as a lifelong artist, and many believed that nothing could be farther from art than the practice of law. For the conventional wisdom goes: Art is exceptional and unbounded; law is rigid and proscribed.
The creation of art requires a free spirit and an exceptional mind, someone willing to challenge the social order. By contrast, law demands linear thinking by a structured person who is most comfortable when penned in by a welter of precedents, rules, and code. I knew the conventional wisdom was wrong, but also durable; drawing the connection between art and law has become my responsibility. Ironically, my early art was entirely governed by rules and precedent.
Growing up in a highly conservative religious environment I was instructed in the creation of pretty, functional, little objects: quilts, potholders, steppingstones. Everything I made fell into a set of norms determined by what was considered attractive, appropriate and acceptable. By conforming I received approval and admiration from my family and peers.
It was not until moving to Berkeley in my third year of college that I was able to free myself from the shackles of felicity, to begin to use my work to challenge authority instead of reinforcing it.
Most of the women in my large, traditional family have no career besides homemaker; no one has gone to college. As a child academics were never emphasized. Far more important than grades were appropriate conduct, an honest faith, and the acquisition of life skills that would later serve me as a wife and mother. I was cooking at age six, and made my first quilt by seven. With perfect grades, a pleasant demeanor, and an active sense of guilt, by the time I was in elementary school my parents had already stopped worrying about my character.
It wasn’t until adolescence that I began to explore the gaps left by their inattention. Around age thirteen, bored with mundane religious lessons, my cousin and I began sneaking into the church attic during Sunday school and listening to records.
Our choice to listen to Bob Dylan was originally out of convenience; we found a stack of his LPs in a dusty corner. But Dylan soon became our obsession. There was no shortage of Dylan biographies and albums at the public library. We would swap stories and information every week. Listening to his lyrics and reading about his influence on both music and culture, we cracked open a window onto a history that had been intentionally withheld from us.
During my junior year of high school my mother, who for religious reasons has not seen an “R” rated movie since 1975, refused to sign a release allowing me to watch Schindler’s List in my honors World History class. Humiliated and angry, I spent that week of classes in the library. Unwilling to settle for an imposed ignorance, I read the Time, Newsweek, and New York Times reviews of the film, quickly realizing the irony: Schindler’s List is the story of a man who challenges a repressive environment from within.
I considered the source of my mother’s prohibition. She didn’t devise it herself; the leaders of her church decreed that neither children nor adults should be exposed to profane imagery. Part of the ban seemed reasonable, if unnecessary: Few would argue in favor of exposing children to violent or sexually explicit images. Yet why did the ban extend to adults? Why didn’t the church trust its congregants to handle mature material?
The answer, I came to believe, was that beyond violence and nudity, movies – and art in general – contain powerful ideas which might challenge the accepted hierarchy. By railing against “obscenity”, church authorities had a powerful tool with which to curb congregants’ exposure to books and films with complex and challenging themes that might inspire questions, innovation and change, and ultimately threaten the established hierarchy.
Although at the time I did not fully understand the extent to which such rules pervaded society, I recognized that my meek obedience made me feel angry and ill. The normative barriers that had surrounded me from birth began to crumble.
I started asking difficult questions of my parents, teachers and church leaders. Their responses, incomplete and unsatisfying when they weren’t overtly dismissive, left me frustrated with my high school education and my range of life experience generally. I was increasingly aware that there was a world outside my community that operated under different rules – rules of which I knew little. Aware that it would be impossible to convince my parents that I should leave high school early, I began respectfully doing everything in my power to take the decision out of their hands.
Halfway through my junior year, much to my parents’ consternation, the counselor transferred my records to a continuation school: despite my 4.2 grade point average, I had exceeded the maximum number of absences. Continuation school was a bleak place. The work was rudimentary and my classmates’ interactions with me typically included a threat.
Contending that I had nothing to learn in that environment, I insisted on testing out of every required subject. The teacher attempted to dole out one exam a week, but it was time to move on. I flew through the exams and requested that my diploma be mailed in June. I immediately found a job and began saving money.
On my eighteenth birthday I left my parents’ house and moved into a small apartment. Committed to remedy my lack of worldly experience, I approached my self-education aggressively, working three jobs, reading constantly, and spending much of my limited free time watching “R” rated movies. A year later, in an attempt to push my cultural boundaries even further, I sold nearly all my possessions and bought a one-way ticket to London.
What I expected to be a lighthearted trip full of touristy thrills in the end proved far more significant. My experiences there are central to the person I have become. I was in the UK for almost a year, and held various jobs at hostels, restaurants, and even a small Welsh factory. Being exposed daily to individuals with distinct nationalities, religions and backgrounds was unfamiliar – and challenging.
I was an utter ingénue, lacking cynicism and discernment. My naiveté led me to constantly put myself in dangerous situations. And finally liberated from any connection to family or community, I found myself without aspirations or goals of my own. Wandering through the streets of Oxford, of Edinburgh, and of Cork, it seemed as though every person I encountered knew so much more than I did about things I wanted to be interested in – politics, art, and culture. Before I returned home I promised myself a college education.
The following spring I enrolled in four of the required general education courses at my local community college. I sponged up all the material, but it was American history – especially urban history – that most interested me. Where the history I remembered from high school focused on historical celebrities, now I was making sense of America’s social structure of by delving into the experience of the ordinary man.
Having grown up in an environment where women were expected to play a mere supporting role, I felt a personal connection to the historically powerless, and saw my own confidence grow with the knowledge of how the marginalized bettered their situation through political struggle and action.
I began to focus on how I might build on their past successes. Yet when I transferred to Berkeley I decided to major in art practice rather than history. Unlike art classes at the community college that focused almost solely on technique, at Cal we were pushed to infuse our work with ideas, arguments, and purpose. With my background in artistic expression, it felt right to call upon my creative talents rather than traditional academic research to pose questions about society and drive the change that I sought.
As a woman who felt that her upbringing was poor preparation for independence and adulthood, and as a student concerned with the historically powerless and the stratification of American society, I used art to make public an interior monologue about influence and social structure that began years before, during that week alone in the high school library.
Delivering that message on canvas or in metal, I sought to stimulate dialogue in which the traditionally boundaries between groups in the United States – race, religion, ethnicity, region, and socioeconomic status – were not relevant, uniting my audience through their common experience. Even though not required as an art major, I continued taking American history classes every semester. They were my research and inspiration. Upon graduation I landed my fantasy job as a full-time mixed media artist, working for a large clothing and housewares retailer…
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