William Stoehr is a world-renowned artist. His technique involves spilling paint and water onto a canvas.
“I like to say that the drip that’s created may be random or an accident, but what I do with it is not,” Stoehr said.
The subjects in his giant paintings are victims, witnesses and survivors. His artwork has a purpose.
“Somehow, I had to cause people to not just respond, but to maybe take some action or to feel differently about a subject,” Stoehr explained.
He wants to end the stigma that comes with addiction.
“My exposure to it really was through my sister. And this is my sister here. This painting," said Stoehr of one of his paintings. "And she overdosed. She had been suffering from alcoholism and addiction for probably 30 or more years. She succumbed and it was tragic.”
His own life experience with his sister, who he calls ‘Emma’ in his artwork, is what drives him to make a difference in this world.
“I learned that it was very difficult," Stoehr said. "One, for our family to talk about this, but two, for my sister to seek help. And it was because of the stigma. In fact, one day, she said she was evil. She’s not evil. She had a disease.”
Neuroscientist Nora Volkow has been instrumental in demonstrating that drug addiction is a disease of the human brain. She’s the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“People still think that people are doing this to themselves,” Dr. Volkow said.
Dr. Volkow uses imaging to understand the changes in the brain that addiction causes. She compares it to the way our bodies memorize a pleasurable response every time we eat or drink water. It motivates our bodies to continue doing those things without thinking about it because it’s necessary for survival.
“But drugs have the capacity to generate and stimulate artificially those same systems creating this strong memory that leads you to want to take the drug the next time you are in the same environment,” Dr. Volkow said.
Dr. Volkow and Stoehr are working alongside each other to change people’s perceptions of those struggling with addiction. They say art communicates emotion and a way to see things differently. Stoehr uses specific methods in his artwork to make people connect.
“It just grabs you as an emotion. I mean, these large faces,” Dr. Volkow said about Stoehr's artwork.
Stoehr says neuroscience taught him that people react strongly to a face with prominent eyes. Moreover, the ambiguity in his paintings forces people to fill in the blanks, allowing us to see ourselves in the paintings, too.
“They are no different from us," Dr. Volkow said. "They feel like us and reach out to you to sort of feel that empathy, to generate that emotional reaction to them as opposed to what we do in society, which basically just rejects them and stigmatizes them and sort of looks the other way.”
Stoehr's art also connects with survivors of addiction and encourages them to seek help. His art is what led his sister to rehab.
“I had tried everything," Stoehr said. "I was at wit's end, and you know, just trying to remain calm and tell her I loved her. And I went up to her door and I said, ‘I’ll paint you a portrait if you go into rehab’. The door opened just a crack and she said yes."
When survivors look at his art, he says they can relate.
“A woman looked at one of my pieces and she said that I knew exactly how she felt and that she wanted to die," he recalled.
Even though his art may seem dark and solemn at first glance, they also portray hope.
“She said that she looked at the very same piece the next morning and saw hope in the woman’s eyes. And then she said, ‘you saved my life.' Now, if that only happens once, I’m a success as an artist.”
Stoehr says he plans to continue his quest to normalize the conversation surrounding drug abuse.
"I don’t want people to feel bad," Stoehr said. "I want them to respond, to understand, to understand that they’re not alone and then to seek help. To take action.”