WILLMAR, Minn. — John Kellen opens the passenger door of his car and gently helps his 87-year-old mother, Colleen, to her feet.
Dressed in a bright red jacket and wearing red lipstick that contrasts with her strikingly beautiful white hair, Colleen is ready for the day’s adventure that’s part of a unique mother-and-son journey.
It’s a journey with two purposes: to relive old memories, and make new memories while Colleen travels down the tough road of Alzheimer’s disease.
John, who had been living in Arizona while working for an international travel company, moved back to his hometown of Willmar, Minn., two years ago to care for his parents. His father, Donald, died in November 2018. Since then he’s been focused on caring for his mother.
The family has always had a love for traveling, and John said rather than sitting at home with his mother, he decided to take her on jaunts around Minnesota, including traveling to nearly all of the state parks.
To manage the challenges of caring for a parent with increasing dementia, John renewed an interest in photography and joined the Little Crow Photography Club, where he was encouraged to take photos of the things he saw while taking trips with his mother.
Photos of wildlife, landmarks and poignant shots of his mother are part of Kellen’s collection of 25 photographs on display at the Willmar Education and Arts Center through October. Because of COVID-19, the display can be viewed only through a virtual tour.
The solo exhibit, called “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words — the Language of Photography,” was made possible through an emerging artist grant from the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council that Kellen received, in collaboration with the Willmar Area Arts Council.
While his mother’s ability to express herself verbally is declining, Kellen said it’s easy to tell when she’s “happy and excited” and connecting with places, people and memories. It might be on one of the many trips they take to cemeteries where family members are buried, or being on the lookout for deer and ducks when driving through state parks.
One of the photos in the collection shows Colleen standing at the grave of her husband at Fort Snelling as she holds a photo of him as a young man in his military uniform. There’s a photo of mother and son standing by a float plane as part of a once-in-a-lifetime, three-day trip to Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, and one of Colleen holding a nice fish on the end of a fishing pole.
The collection includes detailed and touching narratives that provide the background for the photos, like the one where Colleen, who is called “Mutti” by Kellen, is holding a light diffuser while Kellen photographed a native Prairie Smoke flower.
The photo captures Colleen being helpful, which Kellen said is important to his mother, who still wants to be able to contribute something of value.
Being outdoors and watching nature is a passion that mother and son share. Stunning photos of waterfowl, water, rocks and prairie flowers were selected because they have some current significance for his mother that brings her joy, Kellen said.
A photo of a cardinal has a special meaning because Donald Kellen worked for many years as a counselor in the Willmar School District — home of the Cardinals.
A photo of a goldfinch is included even though Colleen is no longer able to say the name but is able to say “yellow one,” said Kellen, who mourns his mother’s loss of language but tries to “not focus on what’s missing but on what she still has.”
Kellen said he’s determined to give his mother quality-of-life experiences “as long as I’m able to do it.”
“I see it as a gift,” Kellen said of being his mother’s caretaker and travel companion. “But it’s certainly not for the faint of heart.”
Technically and artistically the photos of his mother are not his best, Kellen said. But they’re an important part of the story he’s telling in the exhibit about the value of spending time — and being in the moment — with people you love.
“It’s the story of mom,” he said.
Take the virtual gallery tour
To experience John Kellen’s virtual tour of his solo photography show, “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words — The Language of Photography” go to the Willmar Area Arts Council’s webpage at www.willmarareaartscouncil.org and click on the “gallery” heading. The tour will be available through October.