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Blog: Stories and Insight

Celebrating Life’s Transitions with Camden Artist William Butler

Call it artistic inspiration − or just a powerful gut feeling.

But when William Butler toured the new Samaritan Center at Voorhees during its joyous Dedication last November, the nationally recognized artist and designer felt it was missing just one thing: art to fill some of the still-blank walls.

William Butler (center) at The Samaritan Center at Voorhees Dedication with (from left) former Board Chair Liz Thomas, Board Member Chris Fifis, Board Member Mike Kotzen, Board Chair John Gillespie, President/CEO Mary Ann Boccolini, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Stephen Goldfine, Board Member Mike Bozek, and Board Member Sarah Adelman.

Art that would evoke the purpose and mission of this special place…  Art just like the ten-work series, aptly titled Ascension, for which he had spent the last year of his life pouring his heart and soul onto canvas at his Studio Eleven One in Camden.

He says, “As an artist and designer, I appreciate the thought that went into creating the Samaritan Center’s atmosphere of beauty and serenity. I appreciate the many windows and the light that infuses every room.”

Noticing that track lighting had been installed to accommodate future art displays, William just couldn’t shake the vision of his large 4’x4’ paintings illuminating this space as a beacon of light, hope, and joy for the patients, staff, and visitors to the Center. Could this be the first of what he hoped would become an ongoing series of loaned exhibits by area artists?

But how best to broach this idea? “Would Samaritan find my offering my own work as self-serving? That was the farthest thing from my mind!”

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Deep Faith

A man of deep faith, William shared this vision with his wife Ronja − his soulmate and CEO of Thomas Lift Studio, their socially conscious company in Camden creating art and design as a brand of love and justice. Together, they prayed about it and then reached out to Samaritan’s Leadership.

William and Ronja humbly offered the compelling reasons why they felt the marriage of this art – a visual metaphor of personal and collective journeys – to this venue was particularly poignant.  They offered to loan nine of the ten Ascension works (one had been sold to a collector) for exhibition through June.

William writes, “Each person has a unique life journey on this earth. Ascension is a visual expression of the contrasting steps which shape and guide our life’s journey. As people, an inner desire exists to live fuller, richer lives where we are steadily climbing higher in our understanding, faith, and peace.

However, as we live in a fallen world, the tragedies happen, the struggles exist, and the hurts are real. At these times, we feel as if we are descending, as if we cannot view or reach the next step up. At times, it is the step down (valley) experiences where we receive the wisdom, healing, and redemption needed to help us gracefully ascend even higher and steadier in the next stage of our lives.”

William Butler in front of Ascension painting at The Samaritan Center at Voorhees

Samaritan President and CEO Mary Ann Boccolini says,  “We were so moved by William and Ronja’s heartfelt generosity in sharing their beautiful work with all who seek comfort and solace in our new Samaritan Center. They are a shining example of how each one of us can use our unique gifts to uplift and make a difference in our community.”

First Encounters

Mary Ann Boccolini firmly believes that there are few coincidences; that the people who intersect our paths at any given moment are meant to be there at that time. And so it has been with the Butlers! You could say their attendance at The Samaritan Center’s Dedication was pre-ordained years before.

When close to 400 guests arrived (braving a blizzard!) at Samaritan’s 2015 Gala, they encountered a tall, paint-splattered man on an elevated platform laying down colors and patterns on a canvas.

As the party swirled around him, William Butler transformed the canvas throughout the evening.  First, a rendering reminiscent of compassionate hands appeared. Oh, they thought, what a fitting image for Samaritan!

But wait, look again…a new layer merging with the first now formed words central to Samaritan’s mission: Shine, Peace, Mercy, Grace, Love.  Oh, what a fitting message for Samaritan!

And then, with amazement, the diners and dancers looked again to see a third and final composition emerge, built upon the images and meaning of the previous two:  a golden sun rising above blue waters to meet a new day, a new transition, amidst a vibrant eruption of red and orange brushstrokes.

The painting created that evening was the culmination of hours of previous interviews with Samaritan’s leadership – an integral part of William’s creative process of discovery to understand the mission and core vision he hoped to evoke in his work.

The plan was to auction his work at evening’s end to the highest bidder. But 17 board members and friends of Samaritan pooled their resources to win the painting – titled Celebration of Life – and donated it to Samaritan with the express wish that it be installed in The Samaritan Center at Voorhees, the area’s first free-standing inpatient center then under construction.

Fast-forward to November 30, 2016. William and Ronja gathered with more than 150 guests to dedicate the newly completed Center. They beamed with pride and gratitude to see Celebration of Life installed prominently and permanently in its home – prompting William’s inspirational commitment to do more.

Personal Transitions

Perhaps William’s art speaks so eloquently of life’s joys, sorrows, and fateful transitions because his family has embraced the twists and turns of their own life journeys so fearlessly.

Six years ago, some friends and family called them crazy.

After all, how many people would uproot their family, leave a comfortable life in Des Moines, Iowa, and drive 1,100 miles cross-country– without a job or home lined up – to settle in the heart of Camden, NJ?

But that’s exactly what William, Ronja, and their sons Carson and Kaden (then in grade school) did in 2011. Their life-altering decision to “go East, young man,” began four years earlier while engaged in mission work with their Des Moines congregation.  He says, “My wife, two sons, and I started visiting Camden while on mission trips. We had gone on mission trips all over the world, but we felt a strong, compelling reason to be here.”

This humanitarian work fostered their firm belief in the power of art to uplift and heal. On one visit, they were moved by the Scriptural words etched into the façade of Camden’s City Hall: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Regarding it as a Divine sign, they prayed and planned for four years – selling or giving away much of what they owned – before loading a 20’ foot trailer to become an active part of Camden’s “positive transformation movement.”  William says, “Sometime doors open up to take us out of our comfort zone.”

Their impact on their new city has been steady and impressive. They converted a 1906 firehouse into a gallery, a family-friendly place where “people in the community can connect, share ideas, and enjoy art,” says William. “Our hope is that the space is a creative conduit to help in the revival of an art community and other businesses in Camden – such as plans to create a locally grown and locally sewn clothing line bringing new jobs and ethical, empowering workplace practices to a city slowly transforming itself with hopeful new endeavors.

“As we live, work, and serve in the city of Camden,” says Ronja, “we witness first-hand the tremendous restoration and healing.”

Recently named a “City of Camden Woman of Purpose” honoree, Ronja is deeply grateful for the opportunities their transition has made possible. A painting William created for the city of Camden was signed by President Obama during his 2015 visit, and William has created live art at the National Governors’ Association and for Bon Jovi, among many others. “We have been honored and blessed to work with so many tremendous people and organizations over the past many years,” she says. “And we count Samaritan as a very special relationship that we hope to share for many years to come.”

William adds, “We are so grateful to partner with an organization providing unparalleled service to those affected by serious illness and grief, and happy to be providing a source of inspiration for their journey.”

To learn more about the artist, visit: