Woman poses in front of PBS logo.
Kelly Rush poses with PBS logo-- a direct affiliate of Nebraska Public Media. Courtesy photo/Kelly Rush

Kelly Rush collects the red tins of peppermint Altoids, creates ceramic art and produces stories about rural Nebraskans. As an artist, she finds inspiration in all things she can see and has found a way to showcase her artistry through her work as a senior promotions producer at Nebraska Public Media.

But Rush never intended to be a promotions producer at Nebraska Public Media, nor did she intend to be an artist. She knew she wanted something bigger than her hometown of Axtell could offer at the time. 

“I always wanted to leave small town Nebraska and go bigger,” she said. “I thought maybe Lincoln would be a stepping stone, but I stayed. I have had a great career.”

Rush said she strives to bridge the connection between the Cornhusker state and the rest of the world, but through her own perspective.

After obtaining a broadcasting degree from Kearney State College (now the University of Nebraska at Kearney) in 1984, Rush moved to Lincoln to begin a job as a camera operator at Nebraska Public Media. After 12 years, former NPM producer and Rush’s former boss, Steve Graziano hired her for production after seeing her years of work behind the camera.

“I remember I was in the office, in my office on the fourth floor. I was alone next to my desk was a blue office chair. And I’m sitting in that office chair thinking about who do I hire,” he said. “And then in my head, it just said, it’s Kelly’s moment. I thought, yeah, it’s Kelly. I felt great. I felt like this is the right decision. Let’s go home.”

Graziano said Rush does not like and has never liked to write scripts or to speak in front of an audience. He said her eye for visual content on top of audio editing is outstanding, making her television work unique.

“I’m a fairly decent writer, so we didn’t need another one. And with my background in radio where we didn’t have video, what the hell do I know? She was so much better at that. So it just worked out well in our little team there. But then also much, much later on, gosh, she just does some damn good stuff,” he said.

After learning the tricks of her new trade, Rush wanted to tell stories that were unknown and special to the Nebraska community– much like her own. How was she going to draw on her own interests and curiosity to produce stories that Nebraskans would care about? 

Kelly Rush and her artistry

Shortly after her promotion, Rush found an interest in pottery and ceramics after taking some college classes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and even had quite a riveting artist career of her own. 

In a 2010 article written by Megan Gambino of Smithsonian Magazine, Rush talked about her experience with selling her ceramic olives in Clark Whittington’s “Art-o-Mat” machines across the country– from the middle of Texas to the basement of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

The ceramic classes she took helped her gain a new skill in visual artistry, which consequently helped her day job, but she would call her clay work more of a hobby.

“I have a studio at home, and again, it’s an outlet, a different outlet, a different creative outlet than I do here at work, which is television and editing and storytelling. My storytelling at work is through clay, and it’s very enjoyable for me. I always say, I have a serious hobby in clay,” Rush said.

Petals 300x300 - Artsy : How a rural Nebraska artist showcases other rural Nebraska artists
Ceramic flower petals made by Rush in 2023. Photo by Kelly Rush.

With this hobby, Rush encourages her team to view themselves as artists. Her team includes other producers, sound engineers, camera operators, and video technicians– positions that are not typically thought of as artistic. Kay Hall, a Nebraska Public Media TV producer who works alongside Rush on Nebraska Stories, attested to her artistic diligence and passion when it comes to producing stories:

I think that when somebody like Kelly does their work so well and so seamlessly, people just trust her to do good work. And she has a great work ethic. And when people work like that, it might be something where people don’t really appreciate what she brings to the table fully,” Hall said.

Rush has found plenty of artistic inspiration from her own experiences as a native and rural Nebraskan but has grown to find a plethora of curiosity through her team members at NPM– those who not only mentored her on the new job but those who admire her talents. 

“I think that when people feel that they have the freedom, the autonomy to try, and it may not work out. So try- fail, right? But when you try, you have the chance to have success,  and I think that she wants to build people to trust their ideas and just give it a try. How do you know if you don’t try? So she’s encouraging like that. And I think she understands that work gets done through building good relationships,” Hall said.

Kelly’s favorite piece of work

Rush produced “Emery Blagdon and His Healing Machine,” a documentary about artist Emery Blagdon, the Callaway, Nebraska, native who created his well-known sculpture called “The Healing Machine,” as well as various paintings and other sculptures. She said her co-producer, the late Jerry Johnston, became a primary source of inspiration when sharing Blagdon’s story with his home state. 

“He [Johnston] was extremely interested in outsider artists, or visionary artists is what they’re called now, which are artists that were not educated as artists, that just needed to express themselves through art, but not necessarily educated artists,” she said. “And we would talk in the hallways about Emery Blagdon, and Jerry would tell me about other artists, outsider artists that he was interested in.”

Johnston was a radio producer. He didn’t know how to go about visually showcasing Blagdon’s story. After getting some production experience under her belt, Rush and Johnston were keen on visually producing Emery Blagdon’s story, aiming for a 4-minute-long video feature. 

Johnston was diagnosed with cancer in December 2012, just eight months before the documentary’s release

“By Feb. 1, 2013, Jerry had passed from his cancer, but it was around Christmas and New Year’s is when he asked the administration here for that last professional wish [was] to have Emery Blagdon’s story told as a 30-minute documentary, which they obliged. And I then had the assignment to move forward,” Rush explained.

Rush sought to fulfill Jerry’s last wish and did so with such great success that it still airs on national PBS channels. Graziano, who now runs a television scheduling company in Lincoln, says the documentary has played on TV more than 1,000 times since its release in July 2013. 

Rush remembers Jerry as a kind and thoughtful person who truly admired artists who were not professionally trained as artists. It is an experience that she will never forget.

“But with him and I together and Pat, the videographer and editor, it turned out fantastic. And Jerry was a great guy. He was one of those guys that you loved to see in the hall and hated to leave because you had such a good conversation with him,” she said.

What’s next?

While Rush enjoys working on long-form stories, she also enjoys producing and directing promotions for various Nebraska Public Media segments like Big Red Wrap-Up and other stories. These promotions sometimes run during a program or between programs.

Emily Scheidler is a senior studying Journalism and Advertising and Public Relations. She will graduate in May 2024.