Artist, CEO puts community first

Derek Rusher’s murals bring a splash of color and creativity to the prairie towns of South Central Nebraska. The 2002 Hastings College art education graduate and his team from Impact Art, a nonprofit he started in 2017, use spray paint to create vibrant images on public buildings, businesses and even semi-trailer trucks.

Derek Rusher spray painting a mural
Derek Rusher ’02 spray painting a mural.

Their murals include a shelf of giant books on the side of the Kearney Public Library, sandhill cranes flying through a pink and cobalt sunset on a furniture store, a billowing American flag on a Veterans of Foreign War post and a bold ribbon of the Lincoln Highway weaving across a tire repair shop. Visitors to Ravenna, Nebraska, are greeted by a parked semi with the team’s depiction of the 2017 total solar eclipse on one side and a funky, street art image on the other.

“I always had the dream of doing something bigger with art,” Rusher said. “It’s not about money. It’s about the service and opportunities we can provide people.”

When he’s not standing on a scaffold wearing a paint-stained t-shirt, Rusher dons a suit and tie as president and CEO of the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce, the third largest chamber by membership (more than 850 businesses) in Nebraska. Named to the position only a year ago, the energetic former Bronco football player added more than 80 members in 2018.

“My main goals are to increase our relevance in the community and to be the most innovative Chamber out there. I want to make sure we’re a role model for the businesses we serve,” said Rusher, who has elevated the Chamber’s innovation factor through technology advancements, social media strategies and new programs.

Art as a transformative force

Derek Rusher portrait
Derek Rusher ’02

Prior to joining the Chamber, Rusher taught art to troubled kids for 10 years at Kearney’s Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center, earning recognition from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services in 2012 as employee of the year. His previous art teaching experiences include positions at public schools in Kearney and Wray, Colorado, his hometown.

“What I loved about being an art teacher was making an impact on youth through art,” Rusher said. “Art can do so much good in a positive way. You can’t be wrong. There’s proof that people involved in the arts have a better quality of life. Students involved in the arts get better grades.”

His belief that art can ignite change and transform people inspired Rusher to found Impact Art. The nonprofit’s mission is to promote and create positive public art, mentor adult and young artists, revitalize and educate communities, and enhance cultural tourism. Rusher’s team includes Katherine Arias, a 2016 Hastings College studio art alumna and vice president of planning and marketing.

Impact Art’s boldest endeavors are the striking murals around Kearney. In stunning transformations, designs on 8-by-11-inch pieces of paper evolve into multicolored panoramas on once drab expanses of brick or steel. The team documents the process through time-lapse videos and social media posts that drive traffic to the locations and encourage a diverse range of people to see art live and up close.

“It’s a sad truth, but the front of an art museum will always be seen by more people than the art within the museum,” Rusher said. “With public art, everyone has the opportunity to view it, and they get to see the evolution of the art as it’s created.”

Impact Art’s focus on art as a public good continues to propel the organization forward. Rusher’s plans include school programs for special needs and ESL students.

The power of creativity

Rusher is on board with his alma mater’s new emphasis on creativity and innovation, which is a component of the “Hastings College 2.0” revamp of the curriculum and academic calendar. The College hired a Dean of Innovation and Creativity, Chris Hochstetler, former executive director of Omaha-based arts nonprofit KANEKO, to lead the charge in that area.

“I love it. It’s necessary,” Rusher said of the new focus. “We talk a lot at the Chamber about staying innovative and creative.”

When Rusher was a student at Hastings College, faculty members including his adviser Art Professor Turner McGehee nurtured the creativity that now feeds his professional success as an artist and business developer.

“Turner was so instrumental in pushing me to be creative and think outside the box,” Rusher said. “He motivated me to be more ambitious.”

A timelapse video of Impact Art’s mural on a VFW post.

Art Impact trailer picture
Art Impact team members (from left) Josh Arias, Derek Rusher ’02 and Katherine Arias ’16 in front of the Art Impact trailer.
By Judee Konen ‘85, Associate Vice President for College Advancement

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