By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Josh Arias sees the world differently.
His mind is constantly wandering, taking visual snapshots of the things around him. These images show up in the sketchbooks he fills with random doodles and project ideas.
It could be a new sneaker design, a quick portrait of someone sitting across the room during a meeting or the start of a mural that covers a Kearney building.
Art is therapeutic for Arias – a way to escape from a bad day and share his emotions.
“It helps me take care of my mind,” the 26-year-old said. “I’m at my happiest and I’m at my best when I’m doing some kind of artwork and painting. That’s how I express myself.”
His other talent is helping others do the same thing.
Derek Rusher had an immediate connection with Arias when the two met about four years ago.
They were both passionate about art and sports – Arias is a diehard Los Angeles Lakers fan who drew Kobe Bryant over and over during his younger years.
Rusher, who taught art at West Kearney High School at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center for 11 years, invited Arias into his classroom as a volunteer instructor. It was a perfect fit.
“The youth were very responsive to Josh,” said Rusher, describing Arias as a soft-spoken, easygoing guy who is always willing to share his artistic knowledge.
Arias was studying social work at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and serving as an intern with Buffalo County Community Partners. He had a knack for reaching students at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center, which houses minors convicted of certain crimes.
“I think he really empowers students to have that ambition where they’re not afraid to fail,” Rusher said.
His understanding of their backgrounds was key.
Arias’ parents emigrated from El Salvador to the United States in the early 1980s and settled on the south side of Los Angeles in what he calls “the ghetto.”
“We were poor,” said Arias, who can recall a specific incident when a gang member was shot and killed in the driveway of a nearby house. All the neighborhood kids saw the bloody body.
“That was normal – the violence, the shootings, the bars on the windows,” he said.
From L.A. to Lexington
Arias and his family, which includes three siblings, left L.A. in the late 1990s, landing in Lexington after a brief stop in South Carolina.
His father opened an auto repair shop and his mother worked in the cafeteria at a local elementary school then managed a few trailer parks and motels, one of which the family lived in.
“It was definitely different when we moved to Lexington,” said Arias, who had to adjust to the slower pace of life in Nebraska.
He started focusing more on art and began developing his own approach. By high school, he was experimenting with spray paint at his dad’s shop, using bold colors and shapes to make his work stand out like the graffiti he first saw on the streets of L.A.
“I liked the style,” Arias said.
He taught himself the different techniques and landed his first mural project in 2010, a year after graduating from Lexington High School.
Arias, his younger sister Katherine and a third artist worked with a Latino student leadership group in Lexington to create a community mural on a downtown building. It featured familiar images – grain elevators, a viaduct, the water tower – as well as a train to signify the city’s forward movement.
The Arias siblings partnered with another artist about a year later to paint a mural at the Lexington Area Solid Waste Agency landfill along Highway 21 just north of the city.
When Arias met Rusher, he showed the art teacher and students at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center how to use spray paint to beautify a community instead of deface it.
The results of that lesson are visible across Kearney.
Making an impact
Arias and his sister worked with Rusher on the Lincoln Highway mural on the south side of the Garrett Tires building at 18 W. 25th St. and the sandhill crane scene on the north side of Bruce Furniture at 2026 Central Ave.
They also created the billowing American flag on the VFW Club at 2215 First Ave., two pieces on the Chesterman Coca-Cola/Dr. Pepper bottling plant at 119 W. North Railroad St. and the giant books on the west side of Kearney Public Library, 2020 First Ave.
The trio’s biggest project began taking shape last year when Impact Art was officially established as a nonprofit organization.
Their goal is to promote and create positive public art, mentor adult and youth artists and help revitalize communities. Rusher serves as president of the nonprofit, which has a nine-member board of directors, and Arias is the vice president.
Arias, who attended the Creative Center design school in Omaha for a year before enrolling at UNK, believes art is a tool he can use to change youths’ lives for the better.
“There’s a need for that, for good, positive adults who can help youth,” he said.
He saw the violence in L.A. and watched many of his friends get caught up in drugs and gangs in Lexington.
“I always wanted to be there for them, and I felt powerless sometimes because I didn’t have the skills,” Arias said.
After graduating from UNK in 2016, he became the full-time youth coordinator at Buffalo County Community Partners, a Kearney-based nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of life throughout the area.
Arias manages the youth advisory board, which includes students from every high school in the county and addresses issues such as substance abuse, mental health, suicide and bullying.
He also runs PhotoVoice, a grant-funded program that encourages youths to express themselves, explore their creative sides and exchange ideas through photography and writing.
Denise Zwiener, executive director of Buffalo County Community Partners, said Arias’ artistic background and ability to relate to youths suit the position well.
“He’s got a very creative soul, and I think people connect with him because of that,” she said.
Arias is always working on new projects.
The small studio space inside the one-bedroom apartment he shares with Katherine, 24, is filled with paintings, crates of spray paint and dozens of pairs of sneakers – some from his personal collection and others he’s customizing to sell online or give to friends and family.
“I have a shoe problem, but it’s OK,” said Arias, who admits to owning around 80 pairs at one time.
The hobby “grew out of poverty,” he said. When he was younger, his family couldn’t afford to buy the Kobe Bryant signature shoes he wanted.
Now he’s fixing worn-out sneakers and adding his own flair to custom kicks to bankroll the obsession.
“You should be able to design your own stuff and make things your own,” he said.
Rusher, president of the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce, said Arias possesses a level of patience, to go along with his creativity, many artists don’t have.
“I think that’s what makes him good,” Rusher said.
Arias wouldn’t turn down a career as a professional artist, but he’s also pretty happy with his current path. Art can remain part of his personal therapy as he works toward becoming a youth therapist or counselor.
“I just want to be able to make a positive impact,” he said.