When Tommy Noonan ‘01 discusses the practices that guide his life, the imprint his Carolina Friends School education made on him is easy to see. Noonan—who describes himself as a dancer/performer/choreographer/theater maker—says that he is committed to being present with people, being curious, and viewing relationships with others as abundant resources in themselves rather than transactions.
“At Carolina Friends, the emphasis on being in community and the embodied practice of sitting in silence during meeting for worship were incredibly formative toward both my career and life choices,” says Noonan. “The idea of the inner light within each of us which is inherently beautiful and good has supported my creativity in life and in the arts. Developing a connection to my own self and my inner creativity, laid the perfect foundation for me to explore a life of creativity.”
Noonan’s life involves a wide variety of creative and community-building pursuits. Noonan and his partner, Murielle Elizeon, are the co-directors of Culture Mill, a performing arts laboratory whose mission is “to foster a creative ecosystem based in Saxapahaw, North Carolina, through the cross-pollination of artist residencies, educational outreach and groundbreaking immersive artworks from local, national and international artists.”
“I consider myself like a social worker, using my tools—such as embodiment, creation of systems for innovative thinking and for collaborative practices, the balance of executive function and abstract thinking—to help individuals and groups explore new ways of doing things."
Noonan came to the arts through dance and the guidance and nurturing of Annie Dwyer, who served as the dance teacher at Carolina Friends for 31 years. “I have to completely uplift Annie Dwyer, as so many of us do,” he says. “In middle school, when I was playing soccer, Annie would just stop by and say, ‘take a dance class,’ and I’d say, ‘Nah,’ and then she’d stop by again and say, “take a dance class.’” With Dwyer’s encouragement, Noonan took a dance elective primarily because dance could make him a better soccer player.
He grew to love dance and has gone on to become an award-winning artist who performs and has his work presented throughout the world. At the same time, much of his work through Culture Mill is about using the arts to bridge spaces, ranging from realms of social justice, spaces of health care, or community organizing. “Artists have incredible skills that are relevant to many other sectors within a broader social context,” says Noonan. “I consider myself like a social worker, using my tools—such as embodiment, creation of systems for innovative thinking and for collaborative practices, the balance of executive function and abstract thinking—to help individuals and groups explore new ways of doing things."
Noonan brought his skills to Carolina Friends during the 2017–18 academic year as the first visiting artist-in-residence in the dance program. “I felt gratitude to be able to be part of that program and to be back in the Center building,” he says. “To have that reciprocal exchange with Annie and with the students, and hopefully giving something to some of the students, was wonderful.”
He encourages young artists to trust themselves, live courageously, always learn, and follow their joy. “It took me a while to learn that we artists are making up things as we go along,” he says, “It’s possible for young people to think there is a right way to create art and that they have to figure that out. I think the sooner that young artists can give up the idea that there is a right way to pursue art, the better off they are.”
In addition to Dwyer, Noonan cites the late Jamie Hysjulien and former staffers Cotton Bryan, Willy Rotella, Susan Kincaid, Bill Messer, and Beadsie Woo as important influences in his life. His Carolina Friends connection started at home with his mother, Mary Harwood, a long-time Lower School teacher and librarian. “So much of Friends School for me was my teachers,” he says. “I’m incredibly indebted to so many people. I feel that I am a vessel for so much of the wisdom that has lived around me, whether it’s Murielle, Annie, or my other Carolina Friends teachers. I’m committed to a process of learning.”