“I know in my heart that I am where I belong - you know, in front of a canvas with a brush in my hand.”
William Stoehr is an artist born in Burlington, Wisconsin (1948), which was a rural community and regional centre for its surrounding farms. He currently resides in Boulder, Colorado, USA. He is the oldest of five children. As a child, William liked to be outside as much as possible, fishing, playing baseball and riding his bicycle. He was an average but creative student.
Art was always his favorite subject. Since as far back as he can remember, he’s liked to draw, he drew cars, aircrafts, people, buildings and lots of cartoon-like images. He was always designing, building and inventing things, and in his art class, he always found a way to do something out of the ordinary and beyond the assignment.
Like most teenagers, music was important to him and Bob Dylan, the Stones and the Beatles topped the list, which included just about any 60’s folk and rock and roll. He was interested in cars and racing, he owned an old Chevy and then a VW Beetle which he painted with polka dots and turned into a ladybug. He always closely followed auto racing from F1 to drag racing and everything in between.
In 1964 William Stoehr was 16 years old and wanted to be a professional artist. He considered applying to the Chicago Institute of Art but it was just too expensive. College was new to them and his family could offer little advice, so he turned to his high school counselors, unfortunately, they turned out to be useless. No one told him that he could go to a state university ($150 tuition) and study art. The best they could suggest was that he spend time with the illustrator for the local weekly newspaper, the Burlington Standard Press, and become a commercial artist. He was thinking De Kooning and Jackson Pollock and they were thinking advertisements for Elsie’s Dress Shop.
In the spring of William Stoehr’s senior year, his drafting teacher asked if he was planning to go to college. He had a vague idea that he wanted to go but he wasn’t sure what to do or how to go about it. His teacher suggested that he go to his alma mater - Stout State University in northern Wisconsin. He applied and got in. He then set art aside and became an industrial engineer and ultimately president of National Geographic’s world-wide mapping business.
William Stoehr did not paint or draw for many years. He was simply on to a different life. 40 years later in 2004, he retired from the best job he ever had to become a full-time artist. He decided that he was young enough to begin another career and that he would try to become the artist that he wanted to be when he was 16 years old. Now he could afford to define success in his way.
He began painting while his wife Mary Kay and him lived part time on the island of St. John in the US Virgin Islands. His early work was smaller, figurative and colorful but the style was unmistakable and still recognizable as his today, with its sweeping brush strokes, splattered paint, drips and marks.
In late 2004 he had his first solo show, in the Virgin Islands. It, and following shows, were successful but he soon recognized that he was not creating a body of work that was cohesive nor one that he was passionate about. He tried to incorporate symbols that expressed some sort of social commentary and while he was headed in the right direction, the work still did not hold together.
In 2008, Stoehr discussed his quandary with the owner of Space Gallery in Denver, Colorado. He had been showing at Space for a few years and respected the owner’s opinion, who told him that he painted faces well and so why not paint some big faces. This launched him in a new direction and soon his work came to the attention of individuals in the neuroscience world and he was invited to present at the Johns Hopkins University Brain Science Institute Conference - The Science of the Arts. They were interested in several of his artistic choices and how he had learned to paint the way he did. It turns out that the methods he was exploring and techniques he had discovered were areas of scientific interest. They were all exploring visual perception, ambiguity and emotional response. For him, this all resulted in several speaking engagements, collaborations and relationships which have significantly shaped his artistic vision and direction.
One outcome was his interest in higher levels of ambiguity and its effect on subjective interpretation and narrative. Another, was his renewed interest in cubist thought which he now sees as a way of perceiving reality. From the beginning people had strong emotional reactions to William's large portraits. And while many of his portraits lacked leading context, certain viewers described emotional reactions and narratives that related to their own experiences.
On October 2, 2012 William's sister overdosed and died. It is never just one person that is impacted, and it is never simply an isolated instance. This tragedy triggered his desire to focus his work on victims, witnesses and survivors. William Stoehr now wanted his paintings to cause people to experience the emotion as their own reality and ultimately to become part of the solution.
The faces he paints reflect the faces of those affected – the victims, witnesses and survivors of intolerance, addictions and violence. William Stoehr’s paintings are beautifully disturbing. He takes our natural and predisposed attraction to faces and uses this to arouse profound and penetrating emotions within us. Emotions that at times are difficult to engage with but are incredibly important to ourselves as well as the world around us. Stoehr aims to lure far-reaching and always relevant questions and subjects to our surfaces, in order for us as a collective to face them head on and in this turmoil possibly find solutions. His art is astonishing and mesmerizing and remarkably essential.
Q. Tell us about your particular style and how you came to it. Tell us something interesting or peculiar that you wish the readers to admire and understand about you and your style.
A. I have always painted in a freestyle. I experiment with different tools and methods and this has resulted in an ever-evolving style, but one that remains distinctly mine. My love of De Kooning and the abstract expressionists has always shown through my work. I have always painted the human figure, but it has only been in the last several years that I have focused on faces.
My large portraits start with an ambiguous expression, shared gaze and uncertain context calculated to provoke you into creating the narrative. I begin with a live model and then work from reference photographs. I suggest certain features and realistically detail others. I use a limited pallet of acrylic paint along with metallic and iridescent colors that produce changing patterns with changes in lighting and view angle. Likeness is secondary.
My art starts with the recognition that I lose control of the painting the minute I quit working on it and it is seen, experienced and interpreted by others. I want to probe and unleash subjective emotions spanning a lifetime of experiences. I want you to have new and different experiences, over time; each time you re-create my portraits with your own mental image, narrative, and emotions.
Working freely, I drip, brush, pour, scrub and scrape paint while applying a variety of lines, dots and other adjustments. I often paint multi-views or facial features slightly out of alignment. I frequently paint vaguely different expressions for each side of the face. These variations might make my images appear more real as time, half remembered memories, and prior experiences affect your perception. This is a very cubist notion.
I have parlayed problems and experiments into major elements of my style. I work in a manner that results in a lot of unplanned effects that I observe, evaluate, and may attempt to replicate or morph into something else. These experiments, accidents and exploitations drive what I do. It's the practice of making and creating in the moment as a response to something - a stimulus - an idea - a challenge - maybe a drip of paint. That drip of paint running down my canvas may be a random occurrence but my reaction to it is not. What matters most to me is recognizing which accident or experiment might be useful and then how to exploit it now and decide if I want to replicate it later.
I attempt to create endless drama and surprise. Can I cause your perception of the painting to shift or oscillate so that you interpret it in a new or different way each time you experience it?
This could involve changes in visual perception or emotional response such as a shift from realistic to abstract, fear to sadness, highlight to mid-tone, color shifts from bronze to green or movement caused by composition, line, value or color.
Something in the painting causes you, the viewer, to experience it in a way that is more than simply observing an image of a physical subject. This is the reality I am after. Can I actually entice the viewer to not simply interpret my paintings as illusions of reality but instead cause them to perceive and experience a more essential reality of their own making?
Q. Tell us about some of the highlights of your artistic career, such as memorable shows or publications.
A. That first big solo show is always memorable, and awards are always nice but I think the prize that had the greatest significance because it resulted in a more focused direction for my art is that of being selected Best of Show for the Seven States Biennial here in the USA. This resulted in a string of solo exhibitions which focused on my passion and interest in issues surrounding addiction, suicide, intolerance and violence.
Q. What role does the Artist/ Painter have in society?
A. For me as an artist, I paint to make a difference - to be part of a larger conversation - to engage, motivate and heal - to be part of the solution. It’s just who I want to be. It is how I see my role.
The essence of my art is the exploration of fundamental issues of our time. I explore injustice, intolerance, discrimination, addiction, violence and war with its victims, witnesses and survivors.
Q. What’s your best childhood memory?
A. Fishing with my grandfather.
Q. As a child, what did you wish to become when you grew up?
A. The first thing that I recall wanting to be was a baseball player. By the time I was 10 or so I wanted to be an electrician and then an electrical engineer. At 14, I wanted to be an artist.
Q. Do you remember the first art you made? What was it and how old were you?
A. No, but I was always drawing at a young age. I do recall winning an art contest when I was about 10 years old. It was a colored pencil drawing of a covered bridge.
Q. How and when did you first become seriously interested in art?
A. As a teenager my art teacher, Mrs. B. Weiss, exposed me to the abstract expressionist artists Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem De Kooning. That is when I became serious.
Q. What does your art aim to express?
A. For me the essence of art is the exploration of fundamental issues of our time. I explore intolerance, discrimination, addiction and violence with its victims, witnesses and survivors. My job as an artist is to get you to think and to ask questions. This is the larger conversation; the wider dialog that I want to be part of. In the end we must ask how we are to respond. Simply being affected is not enough. How can I make that happen? Can I be part of the solution? That’s what drives me.
Q. If you could work with any artist (past or present) who would it be?
A. Picasso - I am interested in how he thought.
Q. What is your favorite artwork of all time?
A. Picasso’s Gurenica. I went to see the space in Paris where Picasso created Guernica. It is also the building that apparently Picasso believed was the studio for Balzac's Frenhofer in the "Unknown Masterpiece". The first time I saw Guernica in Madrid, I could not bring myself to enter the room. But I finally did and when I was confronted by what is arguably the greatest painting in the last century, I could hear the screams and I could feel the flames on my skin. This was a reality that from that day forward became my goal - to elicit a reality that is more than a simple image and I want to provoke you into creating it in your own mind.
Q. What inspires you?
A. I am inspired by people that do extraordinary things or show great courage. I am inspired by great performances in the arts. I am inspired by the courage of people like Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai.
Q. What medium(s) do you work with?
A. I paint on canvas with a limited pallet of acrylic paint. I include lines drawn with oil pastels and Conte crayons. My primary tools are Bounty paper towels, a variety of brushes, sandpaper and a Scotch-Brite kitchen scrubby.
I typically mix a metallic color (usually silver or gold) with a very watered-down black fluid acrylic and then I pour it on the canvas. Sometimes I let it run and sometimes I let it form a puddle. I lay paper towels over the paint and soak it up. I do this at varying paint-drying stages to get different effects. I apply clear acrylic varnish and then do it all over again. I might have ten or more layers of metallic paint before I am done.
I also drip, brush, pour, scrub and scape paint while applying a variety of lines, dots and other adjustments. I allow accidents to direct/influence me as I create a portrait. I treat the areas between facial features as if they were separate abstract paintings. In other words, I allow the image to emerge from the random application of paint and I also attempt to create interest by treating large facial planes as separate abstracts.
Q. What personality trait has gotten you in the most trouble?
A. People always tell me that I am a risk taker, but I have always thought that I simply had the confidence to experiment. Not all experiments work but some do.
Q. What have you had to sacrifice for this career?
A. I can’t think of anything that I have had to sacrifice. It has been a very rewarding experience.
Q. Who are your biggest influences? Are you inspired by the work of your peers or anyone else in particular?
A. My art is informed by my interest in neuroscience, the visual brain and the ideas of the seminal cubists.
Key influencers include Willem de Kooning, Pablo Picasso, Oswaldo Guayasamin, Marlene Dumas and Egon Schiele..
Q. Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
A. Not for me. I do get immersed in my work and lose track of time but I always make time available to visit with other artists and friends. I also try to draw twice a week with other artists. I only paint certain hours of the day and try to quit promptly at 5pm. My wife and I carve out special times during the week.
Q. Apart from your art, what do you love doing?
A. My wife Mary Kay and I like to camp and fish. We like to walk and hike with our dog Frank. We treasure the times spent with our son, Gregory and his family. We enjoy music and attending concerts. We travel throughout the world. I am an avid reader and enjoy taking classes at the local university.
Q. What is your philosophy in matters of art?
A. I have to have some way to measure my progress and so I ponder what I think is great art and then create my own yardstick. Art is either interesting or boring. I want it to be intensely emotional, honest and original. It might be creative and skillfully executed. And then how about an intellectual underpinning? Does it address social/moral issues? Is it healing? A great piece does not need all of this, but it needs some and sometimes it can be a whole lot of just one. In the end it simply must come alive for me.
Q. What does 'success' mean to you?
A. Yes I can have a successful exhibition and of course there are a few of my paintings that I like but in the end I must measure success in terms of how my work affects people. At my last exhibition which was “Victims – Witnesses – Survivors”, I had several people tell me how my paintings made them understand that they were not alone. Some thanked me for simply recognizing them. Some said that my work reflected just how they feel. Some said that it was good to see an exhibit that brought these issues into the open to be discussed and maybe move someone to take action to help a loved one.
Many if not most of my 300,000 social media followers are from regions wracked by violence and discrimination. Some write to me. A Syrian woman in a refugee camp wrote to tell me that after seeing one of my paintings that she knew I understood her and that she wanted to die. The next morning she looked at the same painting and saw hope in the woman’s eyes and she knew then that she too could have hope. She told me that I saved her life. This is why I paint. This is success.
Q. What are the biggest things you've learned in life thus far?
A. Be persistent. Don’t be afraid to take a risk. Love.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, and by who?
A. I have two which greatly affected my art. The first was when a fellow artist told me that if I wanted to learn to paint that I should learn to draw the human figure. Nothing new here and of course life drawing has been a foundation of art training for ages.
The second was when my friend and gallery owner suggested that I paint big faces. I always paint big faces - same composition, same relative dimensions, but produced in a different way. I want to more fully explore faces simply because there is so much more to discover and say about human emotion.
I rarely have an idea in mind when I start a new portrait other than I am going to paint a face.
Q. What advice would you give to the next generation?
A. Do good. Don’t give up - be persistent. Follow your passion. Find your voice. Learn to draw. Study art history. Don’t worry about what others think of your work.
Q. Why do you paint big faces with those eyes that stare back at us.
A. We are attracted to faces – it is our nature. If I fill the canvas with a big face, then there is little room for external leading context. I think this along with the large size and closely cropped face creates an elevated sense of intimacy.
I try to exploit the effects of a shared gaze. We are drawn to eyes. I want you to feel like my subjects are staring into your soul. There is a difference between a person in the painting simply looking at you versus engaging with you.
If I engage you with eyes, then I can also start to do other things peripherally with line and color. I can color outside of the lines and your mind will resolve it. Vague and scribbled outlines and graphic vectors become part of a recognizable whole.
Q. How do people react to your work?
A. People typically have strong reactions both positive and negative. I realize that I lose control of the painting the minute I quit work on it and it is seen, experienced and interpreted by others. It fascinates me to see how viewers react in ways I never intended or foresaw. Meaning, as it relates to art, is subjective and never fixed.
We are captive to our own experience, perspective and anxieties. They influence our perception of meaning, reality and truth. But our perception is fraught with ambiguity and so I think we adapt and respond by looking inward to past experiences and our common sense for resolution. Half remembered memories, after images and prior non-linear experiences all affect our perception. I want you to have new and different experiences, over time; each time you re-create my portraits with your own mental image, narrative and emotions. Can I entice you to perceive and experience a greater reality of your own making?
The reality I am after is your reality. If I create ambiguity along with a few naturalistic cues then maybe you create reality. That is because you complete the image, you create the narrative and you project your own emotions. You will do a better job with your own perfect mental image than I can.