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“It Is Not Your Fault": Artist William Stoehr’s moving exhibit challenges mental health stigma


By Ella CobbMay 9 at 5:44 AM MT

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Boulder artist William Stoehr’s exhibit “Mea Culpa (crossed out)” is on display at the art gallery inside Pine Street Church through May 31. (William Stoehr/Courtesy photo)

There aren’t many (if any) places of worship that would allow an artist to come in with a can of spray paint and write the words “Mea Culpa” in massive black letters — only to be crossed out by a giant red x — directly onto the church’s wall.


But William Stoehr isn’t any old artist. The Boulder-based painter’s career has been featured in over 120 exhibits, including 30 solo shows, and has gained international recognition for addressing critical social issues through his art, showcased in venues from Prague to London and featured in major media outlets like NPR and the BBC, and has amassed a following of over 300,000 people on social media. When Stoehr has something to say, you are compelled to listen.


In this case, the giant spray-painted words inside of Pine Street Church’s art gallery mark the name of Stoehr’s latest exhibit, titled — you guessed it — “Mea Culpa (crossed out)”. The name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Latin phrase, meaning “my fault;” But with the words crossed out, the title translates to, “It is not your fault.”

The exhibition, which Stoehr debuted on May 1 in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, is a striking, haunting, moving testament to Stoehr’s career-long dedication to addressing mental health issues and substance use disorder in his work.

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The installation features seven rolling trolleys, with portraits on each side, so when one enters the gallery, they see one set of paintings; When they exit the room, they see another, creating the illusion that one is walking among a crowded room. The canvases themselves are massive, measuring five feet wide and more than six feet tall — next to them, a normal-sized person feels completely dwarfed.

The portraits represent the faces of people affected by substance use disorder and its linked mental health difficulties that often underscore addiction, capturing not just the individuals directly affected, but also their families and communities.


In the center of the exhibit, one portrait immediately captures the viewer’s attention — the face of a woman, ethereal and vulnerable. Her hands cover her mouth, suggesting themes of silence or suppression. Her skin appears to be partially decomposed and deconstructed with textures that suggest crumpling or cracking, as if it were made of a delicate, deteriorating material. But her eyes are strikingly realistic, soulful, and very much alive. At the bottom of the canvas read the words “Dad Called — Emma OD’d — Her Soul is At Rest.”


The portrait is of Stoehr’s late sister, who passed away from an opioid overdose over a decade ago, and to whom this exhibition is dedicated.

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While talking about mental health can be taboo, even in 2024, Stoehr is genuine, warm, and a completely open book when it comes to discussing his own experiences.


The Camera sat down with Stoehr ahead of the exhibition’s reception with artist's comments — which will be held at the Pine Street Gallery on Thursday, May 16 from 6 pm to 9 pm — to get the inside scoop on what this work is all about.


DC: Tell us more about the title of this exhibition, “Mea Culpa (crossed out).”


WS: When I was growing up as a kid, we spoke Latin in our church services, and one of the main things I remember from that time was the phrase “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” which meant “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” With this exhibition, I want to make it clear that for anyone dealing with substance abuse disorder, it is not their fault.


DC: Your work focuses on eliminating the stigma surrounding substance use disorder and mental health issues. Could you share with us how art plays a role in addressing these important social issues?


WS: Just like the AIDS crisis in the 80s, the people who were in charge of breaking the stigma were the artists and creators of that time. They started talking about it in their songs, writing about it in their plays, and showing it in their paintings, and by doing so, they began to normalize that discussion. I’m trying to do the same thing, with my work, in breaking the stigma associated with substance abuse disorder, and the surrounding mental health issues that go hand-in-hand with it. I, too, want to normalize the discussion.


DC: The subject of “Emma” appears in a lot of these portraits. Can you tell us more about her?


WS: Emma is my sister, though her name isn’t really Emma. But when I first painted her portrait 10 years ago, I couldn’t get myself to call her by her real name in my work. So “Emma” became a catch-all for her character in all of my paintings.

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When my sister was still alive and struggling, I decided that I was going to fly back to where she lived, and wasn’t going to leave her house until she decided to go into treatment. She had been in treatment before, but with people who have addictions, it’s not often that one treatment solves it. It’s usually multiple times before a treatment takes, or it’s a lifelong effort.


After three days, she had agreed to go. We had to call her doctor, who had to sign off on her getting treatment, and she called him on a Sunday. But he told her, “It’s Sunday, and I just came back from church. Call me tomorrow when I’m back in the office.”


And that right there is stigma. To him, this beautiful woman wasn’t worth spending 10 minutes with on a Sunday. After that, she ran back into her room, slammed the door shut, and wouldn’t come out. And through her door, I pleaded with her, saying anything to get her to come out. And to this day, I still don’t know why I said this, but I told her, “I promise to paint your portrait if you promise to still go to rehab.” She cracked her door open a bit, and said yes.


She went into treatment and was good for five years. And then she had another back surgery, and doctors prescribed to her — a known addict and alcoholic — opioids. She died shortly thereafter.


In dealing with her death, I realized that even though there was nothing more I could do for my sister, I could do something for the millions of people who are suffering from substance use disorder. I’m not a drug abuser, I’m not a victim, and I’m not a survivor of it, but I am a witness of it.


DC: What do you hope that visitors of this exhibition take home with them from the experience?


WS: I want people to come for the art, and stay for the message. The idea is that you’re going to an art gallery, but it turns out that the art in the gallery is dealing with something very personal. For some people, this subject matter may be too much, and I can’t make those people show up. But if people do show up, I think that the biggest thing that they will take away from this exhibit is that they are not alone. If you can come in, walk among the portraits of these people, and see some real-life people in the gallery too, they will realize that there are so many others struggling with these issues, too. They don’t have to go through it alone — and nobody should have to.


Visitors can see “Mea Culpa (crossed out)” at the Pine Street Church, 1237 Pine Street | Boulder, until May 31. The gallery is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays and by appointment for both private and group viewings.


For more information or to book an appointment, call the Pine Street Church Gallery office at (303) 442-6530.


© 2024 Boulder Daily Camera

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