People typically question Nik Nerburn's motives when he walks up to them and says he wants to take their picture.
Anticipating this response, he carries a stack of his photographs with him and hands them to the person. Seeing his photographs is usually the tipping point to the person agreeing to a photo, he said. He'll take a posed photo of the person and, using a small, handheld printer he attaches to his camera, he prints them a copy of the photo on the spot if they want it.
Nerburn, a photographer completing a three-month residency with the Duluth Art Institute, has been photographing the people and places in the Lincoln Park neighborhood since July. His photographs are on display, alongside paintings and drawings by Lincoln Park resident Brad Tollefson, in the front windows at 2001 W. Superior St. in their art show "Window to the West." A public reception to open the show is scheduled for 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday.
It was during one of Nerburn's excursions to photograph people in the neighborhood that he met Tollefson sitting on a bench outside the Esmond Building, formerly known as the Seaway Hotel. Tollefson told Nerburn that he was a painter and ran up to his residence in the Esmond to bring down some of his artwork to show him.
Tollefson took up drawing a few years ago using a pencil and paper he was given to write letters while in jail following a breakdown in Canal Park. Since then, he has continued to draw and paint because it helps him with his mental illness and sobriety. He gives his drawings to people as a thank-you card for putting in the effort to help him, he said. He has been sober for more than two years.
"It keeps my mind occupied so I'm not getting all twisted up in the head. It calms me down - I don't have to freak out and lose my mind - instead of doing a lot worse things," Tollefson said. "It's an expression, it's a release. It gets all the gunk out of me. I can take it out on the canvas."
Nerburn, who is originally from Bemidji, said he's interested in changing neighborhoods and wants his photographs to capture what is lost with the changes and how those changes affect longtime residents, older residents, minorities and people who live on the margins of society. Although some people use the phrase "gentrification," he prefers the term "changing neighborhood."
Nerburn pointed out Lincoln Park's newly formed craft district and influx of new businesses. When he first arrived in the neighborhood in July, he met a man named Randy at the Esmond Building who offered to show him around. He brought Nerburn to the new businesses in the area and was talking to people in the businesses like he knew them. Randy later told Nerburn that he had never been in any of those businesses before that day, saying, "It's not for me," Nerburn said. It was only with Nerburn that Randy felt like he could go inside.
"There's this thing where a lot of people go to the old businesses and don't go to anything new," Nerburn said. "There are people on the opposite side who drive in to go to Bent Paddle and OMC and then leave. ... There's these boundaries we sort of build in our minds of what you can and can't have access to in a neighborhood."
Tollefson said the neighborhood has felt "kinda depressing" and said there doesn't seem to be much in terms of opportunities in the neighborhood. He said he thinks the changes to the neighborhood are a good thing, but it can be concerning.
"Maybe it'll take a while for people to adjust, that this new stuff isn't going to wreck their life and kick them out on the street. A lot of big, fancy rich folks ain't going to buy up all the property and toss them in the street. I worry about that myself. The Esmond is a last chance for a lot of people," he said.
Many of Tollefson's paintings are celebrities, whom he began drawing from celebrity magazines he read while in jail. He said he has been interested in music ever since he heard the Beatles' "Help!" album when he was 5 years old. He is especially inspired to draw the likeness of singer Mariah Carey because her music is inspirational to him, he said.
"There's something about the music that she does, inspired me, kept me going through really bad times. It was something positive in my life. I didn't have much positive ... the inspiration has carried me," he said.
Growing up in Benson, Minn., he struggled in school as a young teenager before straightening himself out in high school. He graduated with an associate's degree from Golden Valley Lutheran College and then completed a year at Bethel College. He decided to work for a while in an effort to save money to cover his student loans, but he ended up partying instead, and his life went into a downward spiral from there, he said. He spent "a good part of my adult life" in and out of institutions, he said. He landed in a treatment center in Duluth seven years ago and has remained in the city since.
He said he's nervous to show people his artwork, but Nerburn has been supportive.
"It's humbling in a way and a thrill. Never expected it. I don't know what to expect next," he said. "This kinda scared the heck out of me. It really does. But it's been positive, so I'll just kinda ride the wave and hope everything goes OK."