PERHAM – “When did you feel a sense of belonging?” That was the question on the minds of many Perham residents this November when artist and photographer John Noltner came to the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center to complete a photography series as a deep dive into the community.
During his time at New York Mills, he traveled to various communities in the Lake District—including Perham Living and the local Elevating Voices Memory Loss Chorus—taking portraits of people and asking them this question: “When did you feel a sense of belonging? ” In the editing process, he took the photos and paired them with the responses given by the subject—giving viewers a peak into the minds of their fellow community members. These finished works make up Noltner’s exhibit, currently on display at the cultural center: “Belonging “.
This series is part of an ongoing project Noltner has been working on for about 15 years under the umbrella of an organization he founded called A Peace of My Mind. In a divided world, the goal of this project is to rediscover what connects us as humans, Noltner said. Wherever he goes in the country, he changes the questions he asks his subjects. Sometimes A Peace of My Mind conducts long oral history interviews that they turn into podcasts, and other times they do a series of portraits, like these with Peram residents.
“I was increasingly frustrated with the quality of our national dialogue,” Noltner explained of the initial inspiration behind the idea. “I was really concerned about all the things that made us focus on what could tear us apart. Of course, that hasn’t improved in the last 15 years as we tend to become more politically divisive and things like that. I just really wanted to use my skill set instead of asking “What connects us?”
So when Noltner originally came to New York Mills to work with the cultural center, he heard about Elevate in Peram and about people dealing with memory loss: Elevating Voices. Several choir members were also Perham Living residents. That gave them the idea to reach out to the treatment facility and ask if Noltner could come for a day, talk to the residents and get their pictures.
And so, on some schedule, Noltner and his gear came to Perham Living during one of their November happy hours.
“I think people were kind of worried at first,” said Perham Living Resident Engagement Manager Madison Malstrom. “They were like, ‘I don’t want to be photographed.’ And then the first person did, and it snowballed from there. And I think John had to stay even a little later to get everyone’s photos because it turned out to be a great success… And the photos turned out beautiful. I think something that we don’t get a lot of — a lot of people might not have pictures of themselves at that age, especially a nice professional picture. It’s just such a treasure.”
Perham Living even printed Noltner’s portraits and put them up for Holly Jolly’s Happy Hour event on December 21st. Residents will also have the chance to go to the cultural center on Friday, December 29 to see their portraits in a gallery.
“One thing I love about this process is that people are excited about it,” Noltner reflected on what it’s like to work with members of the Perham community. “People like to be heard and they just made me feel welcome. They opened up to the out-of-town stranger and shared these beautiful stories. I don’t get to meet each person for very long, but it’s just this little sweet moment where we exchange a little energy and a little time together. And at the end of it, it’s hard for us to leave.”
Noltner enjoyed working in a small community because he ran into several people he talked to about the series and was able to connect with them even more. It was a joy for him to be able to grow and maintain these connections he made through his art.
“I think it kind of shows that (Perham Living residents) are still part of this community,” Malstrom reflected on the importance of this experience. “Everyone still – no matter what age – wants a sense of belonging and longs for a sense of belonging. Sometimes this can be difficult when you move into a long-term care community. So to be able to even stop and think about, ‘Where do I feel like I belong and when do I feel like I belong’ is just super important and it’s almost just therapeutic for some.”
By the end of Noltner’s day at Perham Living, he had photographed a total of 27 different subjects, from residents to staff to volunteers and even a dog. After Perham Living shared some of the photos on social media, it was fun for the staff to show residents that people throughout the community are loving it left and right. Family members even commented on the photos – reaching people outside the community and even outside the state.
“I knew it was going to be beautiful, but I didn’t expect such a wonderful response from him,” Malström reflected. “This was a very special project. She also mentioned that they were also so grateful to even be considered for it.
“Belonging” will be on display at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center through Saturday, December 30. For more information about Noltner and this project, you can visit his website at apomm.net. The series featuring Peram residents can be found at apomm.net/2023/12/20/belonging-2-0. A Peace of My Mind also recently published a book, Lessons on the Path to Peace, which features the stories of various people from around the country. For more information on this, go to apomm.net/product/lessons-on-the-road-to-peace.
“This project is rooted in listening,” concluded Noltner. “It’s rooted in taking time to see and hear each other. I hope the project encourages people to do just that.”
Elizabeth (she/her), 25, graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Stout with a degree in Journalism and Communications in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham – centered content.