Grad's multimedia project encourages civil discourse
Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. —John F. Kennedy
What does peace mean to you?
If you were to run into John Noltner, he just might ask you that question.
The 1990 UW-Eau Claire journalism graduate and professional photographer has, since 2009, been developing a multimedia art project that he hopes will foster public dialogue about conflict resolution, civic responsibility and peace.
The project, "A Peace of My Mind," was born out of Noltner's desire to shine a light on the complex issues surrounding peace and to give a voice to people who believe in peace.
"After 9/11, I became concerned about the direction of the country's dialogue," Noltner said. "Our leaders focus on things that divide us. I wanted to take a look at the common humanity that connects us. Focusing only on the problems is corrosive."
The Minneapolis-based Noltner was an extremely busy freelance photographer for several years working with national magazines as well as corporate and higher education clients.
"When the economy tanked in 2008, I ended up with a lighter workload," Noltner said. "It was then that I decided to work on a project that was meaningful to me."
Noltner said he has long had an interest in social justice issues and wanted to provide a forum for ordinary people to tell their stories of peace. He gathered a diverse group of 52 Minnesotans through a variety of channels and began the process of conducting interviews, asking each participant, "What does peace mean to you?"
His subjects included Holocaust survivors, a homeless man, artists, volunteers, politicians, business leaders, a Somali refugee and a military chaplain. In addition to recording the interviews, Noltner took black-and-white portraits of his subjects. He then edited the interviews into downloadable podcasts and posted the portraits and short biographies with them.
If we all learned to find humanity in our adversaries it might be easier to bridge the gaps we find between us. —John Noltner
Noltner said all of his subjects were interesting, but a couple of them were particularly memorable.
"David DeLampert has lived on the streets of Minneapolis for 30 years," Noltner said. "I had met him a year before I started on the project, and I thought he'd be an interesting interview. He was bright and engaging, but I didn't know how to find him. Eventually, I was interviewing a volunteer at one of the Twin Cities homeless shelters, and David walked in the door. I took that as a sign that he was meant to be a part of the project. He was very wise, sweet and kind and was happy to share his thoughts about his view of peace."
Fred and Judy Baron are Holocaust survivors who met after the Nazi death camps were liberated.
"Fred talked about the Nazi guards at Bergen-Belsen and the fact that they had families living just outside the camp," Noltner said. "Fred said he could see the guards being good fathers and husbands and noted the irony of the guards turning on the prisoners and treating them like animals. He was filled with grace in that he could point out any good in those guards who were essentially trying to kill them. He was able to see some humanity in them in this inhumane situation. If we all learned to find humanity in our adversaries it might be easier to bridge the gaps we find between us."
While the project participants had varying views of peace, some common themes emerged during the interviews, Noltner said.
"Many people touched on their ability to find peace in extraordinarily difficult situations," he said. "We have control over our lives through our attitude, approach and reaction, resulting in our creating peace within and around us.
"Secondly, we often believe we don't have the power to make change, but we actually do have remarkable control and the ability to make a difference. It's been shown throughout history that being persistent and following through can pay off."
His subjects also talked about finding peace by reaching out to others in need.
"We may be hung up on our own issues and problems, but once you start being of service to others, all that other stuff just goes away."
In 2010 Noltner produced the photo and interview series as a traveling exhibit, supported, in part, by funding from the Minnesota State Arts Board. The subjects are each showcased on a 24-by-36-inch canvas gallery wrap that includes their name, a short biography, a portrait and a 250-word excerpt from their interviews.
The following year, Noltner won support from 92 backers to produce a book from the series with the foreword written by peace activist Ela Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi's granddaughter. The book received first prize in the Midwest Book Awards and a silver IPPY in the Independent Publisher Book Awards.
The exhibit has traveled to at least 20 venues in several states and made an appearance at UW-Eau Claire this spring. Noltner's visits to exhibit sites have sometimes featured public lectures, performance events, book readings, writing workshops and classroom discussions. His most in-depth site activity to date occurred when he returned to the UW-Eau Claire campus in December 2012 to work with university art students on a phase of the project involving local individuals as subjects. Students Phillip Schladweiler, Alison Wheeler and Drew Hagen were guided by Noltner through his process for interviewing and taking portraits;the students, in turn, were paired up with their subjects and completed projects in the spirit of Noltner's previous works.
"I'm hopeful this locally based activity can be used as a model for other communities across the country as we work to encourage this kind of dialogue," Noltner said.
Hagen said he felt privileged to be a part of the project.
"John's project shines a light directly on the important and consistently relevant question, 'What does peace mean to you?'" Hagen said. "Not only do I feel this question should be asked of everyone;I think our answers deserve far more attention and thought than we give them in our society."
Hagen also said he was grateful for the opportunity the project gave him to learn new skills not traditionally taught in his academic discipline.
"I'm an art (photography) major, so I haven't had a lot of experience with the journalism side of things," he said. "Not only was I slightly nervous about interviewing a politically savvy and knowledgeable peace activist (award-winning author and Eau Claire resident Cathy Sultan), but inexperienced in my use of video and audio tools.
"I'm certainly richer for having worked with John Noltner, observing his successes as a photographer and being able to learn from seeing his creative processes."
Schladweiler interviewed and photographed Charles Vue, assistant director of UW-Eau Claire's Office of Multicultural Affairs. Similarly, Noltner interviewed and photographed Schladweiler, a military veteran who was wounded in an IED attack in Iraq.
"I think putting yourself out there and being the one asking the questions was the most challenging part of the process for me personally," Schladweiler said. "But as difficult as it was, it was equally rewarding; rewarding in the sense that I did it and gained confidence and valuable skills in interviewing that I know I will use in the future."
Wheeler interviewed and photographed Rita Webb, an international student adviser at UW-Eau Claire who served with Nonviolent Peaceforce for more than five years in the conflict zones of Sri Lanka.
"This project got me thinking about peace and what it means to me," Wheeler said. "It was very helpful for me to have such a strong role model say a lot of things that I'd been thinking about and trying to understand."
The UW-Eau Claire Foundation sponsored the local portion of the project. The students' completed works were displayed during the UW-Eau Claire exhibit this spring and will become part of the university's permanent art collection. The UW-Eau Claire exhibit culminated in a Forum Special presentation by Ela Gandhi, who on May 7 gave a lecture titled "Exploring the Meaning of Peace One Story at a Time."
Friend, mentor, advocate
Instrumental in bringing the project to UW-Eau Claire was Rick Mickelson, administrative program manager in UW-Eau Claire's Learning and Technology Services, who served as supervisor and mentor to Noltner during his years as a student worker in what was then the Media Development Center.
"Rick encouraged and supplemented the learning that happened in the classroom and always took an interest in the projects I was working on," Noltner said. "It turns out that our styles, approaches and interests in photography overlap, and his mentoring continued beyond graduation.
"As my son prepares to attend UW-Eau Claire in the fall, I hold out Rick's mentoring and friendship as an example of what is best about the university."
Mickelson has high praise for Noltner as well.
"I remember writing a note to John when he graduated from UW-Eau Claire about a trait that is not easy to learn but that he owned in abundance: empathy," he said. "I think that trait has served him well."
Seeing where it leads
More than 60,000 people have engaged in some way with the "A Peace of My Mind" project so far, and Noltner says he is encouraged by the conversation that's taking place as a result. The way he sees it, "A Peace of My Mind" is just getting started. Last summer he announced the next phase of the project: "A Peace of My Mind: American Stories."
Noltner is currently on a series of road trips across the country, making connections with people and gathering content for a new exhibit, book and, this time, short videos of his subjects. He said he hopes to finish his interviews by the end of 2013 and release the "American Stories" project by Sept. 21, 2014 —the International Day of Peace.
Noltner said he's considering doing an international version of the project, as well as one involving people with name recognition (Jimmy Carter and the Dalai Lama, for example).
"It's clear that the conversation isn't done," he said.
A peace of the artist's mind
As he's been working on the project, Noltner has given some thought to his own definition of peace.
"Peace is about creating a space where people are willing to listen to one another's stories and set aside their prejudices and preconceptions," he said. "People are hungry for this conversation. There's so much polarization, so much shouting in the traditional media. People are longing for reasonable dialogue. The moderate voices aren't always the loudest, but answers aren't going to be found in the screaming and shouting. The answers are going to be found in sitting quietly across from someone and having a fair and reasonable dialogue."
Photos by Rick Mickelson