Student Turns Public Art Into Successful ArtPrize Entry

“Immeasurable Numbness” is immediately impactful. The background is a series of scenes, one blurring into another: slavery, violence, police brutality, homelessness. These scenes drip down, bleeding into the foreground, where a lone black woman stands. Her hair circles her head in a halo. Her eyes are wide with surprise, horror, and sadness. A “Black Lives Matter” sign is being ripped from her hands and a piece of duct tape saying “All Lives Matter” is slapped across her mouth. Her own hands are in cuffs. Needless to say, the piece holds a powerful message.

a piece of art displaying what African Americans had/have to go through
Rachel Nanzer’s art piece “Immeasurable Numbness”

As she began working on it last fall, Rachel Nanzer, the Professional Writing (PW) student who created “Immeasurable Numbness,” had an idea. Instead of completing it in the privacy of a studio or her dorm room, she decided to complete the piece in public. She painted the background then set it up in Wells Hall during peak class times and began working on the foreground. She also set a stack of sticky notes and a pen nearby. She displayed three signs while she painted. The first read, “This is a place for discussion. Honesty is appreciated. Hate speech is NOT tolerated.” The second, “How does the statement ‘Black Lives Matter’ make you feel?” And finally, “How does the statement ‘All Lives Matter’ make you feel?”

Art is a creative thing, and people are usually drawn to creativity.

“Art is a creative thing, and people are usually drawn to creativity,” Rachel says. “My goal for this project was to draw people’s awareness. By leaving sticky notes with their own thoughts, or just talking with me and other people in that space, there could be a chance for understanding to happen.”

Rachel noticed some students shied away from her artwork but she was still able to achieve her overall goal. Some students stopped by on their way to class to write a few notes. Others lingered, discussing the painting and the message of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was two weeks after the 2016 presidential election, and spaces for discussion like the ones Rachel hoped to foster were needed everywhere, including on Michigan State’s divided campus. The boards quickly filled up with Post-It notes. “The process of doing everything in public became such a meaningful part of the artwork,” she says. “It increased the meaning of the piece rather than if the art was just standing alone.”

portrait of a girl with brown hair wearing a black hat and scarf
Rachel Nanzer, Professional Writing student

Rachel also began to see how the project directly related to ideas she was exploring that semester in WRA 360 Visual Rhetoric with Professor Danielle DeVoss. “I was in a digital rhetoric class and realized, ‘Wait, art is visual rhetoric!'” she laughs. “When you think of visual rhetoric, you’re considering how it’s is going to engage people, how you can communicate what you want to communicate visually to other people.”

Rachel worked with Professor DeVoss and composed a reflective statement that she later used on a website for “Immeasurable Numbness.” She also built the website herself, drawing on skills she gained in WRA 210 Web Authoring.

Rachel eventually decided to enter “Immeasurable Numbness” in ArtPrize, a prestigious city-wide art festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was thrilled when the piece was selected. “Being in ArtPrize was a huge honor,” she says. “It’s been one of my life goals, so to have this meaningful piece be a part of it was so exciting.”

Being in ArtPrize was a huge honor. It’s been one of my life goals, so to have this meaningful piece be a part of it was so exciting.

Rachel is currently completing her final year in the PW program and also taking several Studio Art courses . Following graduation this spring, she hopes to work with a nonprofit organization, helping them advance their mission through more effective communication with the public.

As for her art? “I have an idea for what I want to do next year for ArtPrize,” she says. “It’s pretty ambitious. I have a whole bunch of canvases I want to piece together in a seven- by ten-foot—thing,” she laughs. “I have all the stuff, but I have to start making it.”

Rachel appreciates the way the PW program has helped her develop as both a writer/communicator and visual artist. “I think PW has done a great job with helping me consider the most effective genres to use, how to work within those genres, and how to consider my audience,” she says. “I think Professional Writing is definitely a creative program.”

“Immeasurable Numbness” and a video describing Rachel Nanzer’s process can be found here.

Originally published by the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures.