THE SPA IN ME
Interview With John Noltner, Founder and Executive Director of A Peace of My Mind
A Peace of My Mind is a multimedia arts project, created by award-winning photographer John Noltner, that uses portraits and personal stories to bridge divides and encourage dialogue around challenging social issues. Through exhibits, workshops, lectures, on-site studios, and distance learning, A Peace of My Mind leads transformative experiences that help a polarized world rediscover the common humanity that connects us.
A gifted storyteller, Noltner has worked on four continents, gathering stories of human courage, grace, and resilience. He has produced projects for national magazines, Fortune 500 companies, and non-profit organizations. A Peace of My Mind reflects his belief that art and storytelling can help individuals, organizations and communities articulate their deepest values and see themselves and their peers in new ways.
Thank you so much for this interview. Before we get started, how are you doing? How are you feeling at this very moment?
There are so many ways to answer that question. We are inspired, tired, hopeful, concerned and curious. We are incredibly grateful for this journey and we are tired from being on the road. My wife Karen and I sold our home of 20 years in Minnesota in the fall of 2020 and have been crossing the country in an RV for the past 10 months. Like so many others, we are weary of the uncertainty of life in a pandemic and concerned about the increasing division in our country. But that being said, we are also inspired by the beauty and wisdom that’s all around us. We have allowed our incredible natural landscapes to renew and uplift our spirits and we have encountered kind and generous people everywhere who are finding creative solutions to our most complex challenges. The logistics of this journey feel sometimes daunting, but the reward is a renewed sense that although our problems are profound, there are ways to approach them with grace, hope, and the belief that something better is possible.
Thank you for sharing. Now, can you tell us what inspired you to build community and bridge divides by using portraits and storytelling?
I’ve spent my career as a freelance photographer, shooting travel and human interest stories for national magazines, Fortune 500 companies and non-profit organizations. In the process, I found that it was my job to find beauty in unexpected places. People hired me to see good where others struggled to find it. Over the years, I became increasingly concerned with the quality of our national dialogue and all the ways we are asked to focus on the things that can separate us. I started to wonder if there was a way that I could use my photography and storytelling, to rediscover what connects us. It was the start of A Peace of My Mind. And now twelve years later, what began as a small personal project and has now grown to become my life’s work.
What feedback did you receive when you first started sharing portraits that featured personal stories? Is there a particular moment that you knew you had created something special?
Again, there are several ways to answer this question. On a personal level, I found that I learned something new with each interview. My eyes were opened to new perspectives and new ways of understanding the world. So very early on, this encouraged me to continue the process and the exploration.
When the people I interviewed started saying things like, “Thank you for taking the time to listen,” or “Thank you for letting us tell our stories,” I recognized that there was something simple yet profound in the process of deep listening that allowed people to feel seen, heard and valued.
And in the larger sense, when we started sharing the stories in public venues through our website, exhibits and books, I saw the connections that were made when people found common ground in unexpected places. Now, everywhere we go, people share ways they have been touched by stories that remind us of the ways we are all more deeply connected than we often acknowledge or understand.
You have a new book entitled, Portraits of Peace: Searching for Hope in a Divided America, set for release on September 21, 2021. Can you tell us about the book? Also, how do you want people to feel after reading your new book?
Portraits of Peace is my own journey of encountering difference. Of recognizing my own blind spots. And of learning how to be a better ally. Over several years, I traveled 40,000 miles across the country, asking people the simple question, “What does peace mean to you?” I met people who were Holocaust survivors, refugees, and undocumented immigrants. I spoke with veterans and artists and business leaders. I encountered people who had been through the prison system, who suffered from substance abuse or were diagnosed with a terminal illness. I sought out a broad cross section of who we are as Americans and simply listened.
So, Portraits of Peace shares both my own personal journey of discovery, but also the wisdom of the kind, generous and inspiring people who I encountered along the way.
My goal is for Portraits of Peace to encourage people to listen deeply, challenge their own expectations and commit to staying at the table when things get difficult, so we can find a path toward living better together.
What is the most moving or fulfilling experience you’ve had as a result of writing this book? Can you share one of the stories in the book?
I always say that my two favorite interviews are the one I just finished…and whatever might come next. I am forever curious about what is around the next bend and who I will meet tomorrow. I am always honored by people who make space for me in the midst of difficult circumstances.
I interviewed a woman named Elaine Baker in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. It’s the oldest all-Black township in America and I interviewed Elaine at her church, which was central to her life. It was a Saturday and at the end of the interview, she asked if I could stay and come to church with her the next day. I wanted to, but the pressures of the road and my full schedule wouldn’t allow it. I had to move on.
Several years later, Karen and I were in the area for an exhibit. I called Elaine on the phone and asked her if the offer to join her for church was still on the table and she said yes. I asked what it would be like when a couple of white, northern Lutherans walked in the door and she said, “You’ll be the only ones, but we’d love to have you.”
The church service was two hours long. It was filled with energy and love. When it was over, another hour passed before we could leave the building because it seemed that each member of the congregation wanted to walk over to say hello and make us feel welcome. When I met the pastor, I said, “You know, at our Lutheran church in Minnesota, we all tend to sit on our hands when we praise Jesus, but you all don’t seem to suffer from that same malady.” And he smiled and said, “Oh, there’s no right or wrong way to praise the lord…this is just how we do it.”
Isn’t that beautiful? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could approach the world with grace and appreciation for difference like that?
You often ask the people you photograph to tell you what peace means to them. Can you tell us what peace means to you?
For me, peace is a collective pursuit. A communal experience. The notion that everyone has the resources they need in order to thrive, and a sense of justice that removes systemic barriers and allows individuals to have a seat at the table and a voice in pursuing a rich social landscape that values all people.
People disagree over the question of whether you should work on your own personal peace first, so you can reflect it out to the world…or focus on all the world’s issues, and take care of yourself later. Classic chicken and the egg question. I think they happen at the same time. Most of my own inner peace is a direct result of working in community to make sure that others have what they need in order to thrive.
Thank you so much for these insights. It was a true pleasure.
Portrait of Elaine Baker, featured in Portraits of Peace: Searching for Hope in a Divided America by John Noltner.
You can order your copy of John Noltner’s new book, Portraits of Peace: Searching for Hope in a Divided America, directly from the publisher or from your favorite bookseller.
You can follow John Noltner and A Peace of My Mind on his website and social media at: