What does peace mean to you?
That’s the question at the center of Twin Cities photographer and author John Noltner’s ongoing arts project, “A Peace of My Mind.”
Noltner was recently invited to speak about his work at a joint meeting of the Mound-Westonka and Wayzata Rotary Clubs. Presenting to a room of people at the Wayzata Country Club on March 30, Noltner explained how he founded the multimedia arts project, which is meant to act as a catalyst for public dialogue around issues related to conflict resolution, civic responsibility, social justice and peace.
Noltner said the idea for project was sparked after becoming increasingly frustrated by the quality of the national dialogue that often separated people based on politics, ethnicity, religion, gender and class.
“I wondered what would happen if I used my photography and my storytelling to look at what connects us, to look at the common humanity that we all share and to try to rediscover what’s good,” Noltner said.
With 25 years of experience as a freelance photographer – including work for national magazines, Fortune 500 companies and various nonprofit organizations – Noltner decided to focus his skills on a project that he could call his own.
“Doing the assignment work, you’re really giving voice to someone else’s vision. … And I really felt like I had my own vision and my own message to say to the world,” he said.
His idea: to gather interviews from a broad spectrum of people on the subject of peace.
“My dad was a social worker and my mom was an educator. So, these ideas of the common good were always sort of circulating through our lives,” he said.
After sending out mass emails in and around his Bloomington neighborhood, it was suggested that Noltner interview Barbara Nordstrom-Loeb, a psychotherapist and educator involved in various social action issues.
“I had never really recorded interviews before, and I wasn’t quite sure how the logistics of the interview would go, but she was patient and had really interesting thoughts to share. … And it just grew from there,” Noltner said.
His meeting with Nordstrom-Loeb would become the first of many portraits and personal stories gathered over the next two years. The interviews all took place in Minnesota and included activists, artists, immigrants, teachers, Holocaust survivors, former prisoners and others.
“I think our own backyard is a great microcosm of the world. You can find some really diverse people with some really diverse perspectives,” Noltner said.
In one interview, Noltner talked with David A. DeLampert Jr., a veteran who had been living on the streets of Minneapolis for the past 30 years. Noltner explained that DeLampert Jr. would invite others to sign his coat with a marker, along with collecting a dollar or two from the strangers.
Over the years, DeLampert Jr. has filled up over 100 coats. And when each one became filled with names, Noltner explained, DeLampert Jr. would give the coat away to someone less fortunate.
“For David, collecting signatures began as a way to survive, but eventually became a way for him to reach out to other people,” Noltner writes in the book.
Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the “A Peace of My Mind” project self-published its first book in 2011, accompanied by two traveling exhibits, speaking events and workshops.
In 2012, Noltner began working on a second book, titled “A Peace of My Mind: American Stories,” which includes stories from people across the U.S. Work on the project has included driving 40,000 miles around the country to gather new stories and photographs.
“Curiosity about the world has really driven this project,” Noltner said.
Currently on a break from interviews, Noltner said he is working to get his work posted online to the project’s website, which includes video and podcasts with interview subjects. The website also includes upcoming dates for the “A Peace of My Mind” travelling exhibit, which was recently featured at Elmira College in New York and will he headed to the Gandhi-King Conference for Nonviolence in Memphis, Tennessee.
Noltner said the exhibits have become a great opportunity to hear from others about their views on peace and what impact the “A Peace of My Mind” project has had on them.
“People regularly express that it opened their eyes to some new possibilities,” Noltner said. “They express that they’ll be a little slower to judge.”
It’s a reaction that Noltner said reflects what he believes peace is all about.
“For me, the notion of peace really revolves around learning how to live better together. … When we become polarized, it’s easy to think of ‘us and them,’ but when we meet those other people face to face and we hear their stories and we know their names, and we sit and spend time with them, it reduces the opportunity to marginalize or vilify or demonize other types of people.”
Visit the “A Peace of My Mind” project online at apomm.net.
Contact Jason Jenkins at [email protected]