ALTON - Charles Mooneyham has saved countless lives, including his own.

The painter once worked as a registered behavior technician in autism, then a suicide hotline clinician where he took up to 45 calls a day from people who were on the brink of ending their lives. Now, Mooneyham works as an artist with a studio in Godfrey, and he’s focused on giving himself the same peace of mind that he spent so long giving others.

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“I think a lot of it had to do with survival,” Mooneyham said. “My mother died by suicide. My aunt died by suicide. My half-brother died by suicide. And then I developed a drinking problem, and then I got sober. And then I started giving back. Everything that I have done has been with the intent of survival, surviving the hauntings of my past, some of which I created.”

Mooneyham’s story of survival began as a child. He escaped the trauma of his childhood by watching horror movies and creating airbrush drawings of horror characters. (Freddy Krueger is still his favorite.) In high school, his art was “kind of dark” as he struggled with schoolwork and bullying. He took refuge in the art room and received resource support for math up until high school.

Through all of these challenges, art remained constant. As a college student, Mooneyham studied painting under Dale Threlkeld and began showing his art in galleries. The 1990s were filled with success as his paintings were featured in music videos, album covers and more.

But at the same time, Mooneyham’s life was “spiraling out of control.” His substance use and trauma history were becoming too much to handle. He ended up in the psychiatric ward, his life saved by the very suicide hotline he would go on to work for. He emerged sober and a little distant from the artist he had been.

It was a new chapter. He began working at Special School District of St. Louis with kids on the autism spectrum, and they “just stole [his] heart.” In 2013, Mooneyham returned to school to study behavioral neuroscience. He began refurbishing a tiny house with his husband and posting on a successful YouTube channel, which scratched the artistic itch. By all accounts, things were looking up.

“The kid who wasn't smart enough to make change, who was in special ed classes, who could only draw pictures, is now a freaking neuroscientist,” Mooneyham said. “But after the pandemic hit, s*** got weird.”

His husband — a professional tarot card reader — and Mooneyham moved to Alton, where they quickly fell in love with the spooky small town and the kind-hearted people. And Mooneyham took a new job as a suicide intervention clinician at a hotline.

While the job was rewarding, it was also emotionally draining. After a few years, it started to take a toll.

“Every single one of those calls, you’re in a moment of the worst day of someone’s life,” he remembered. “What that does to you, especially when you’re carrying a lot of trauma yourself — half my family died by suicide. So every day at work was constant retraumatization for myself. Even though I was getting the fulfillment of doing work to help people in the community and it helps me feel good about myself. Like, I’m legitimately saving lives. Literally, if I mess up at work, somebody’s going to die.”

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Overwhelmed, fighting panic attacks, adjusting to his new home, what did Mooneyham do to cope? He turned to the one thing that has always helped him: art. He bought an airbrushing kit and began drawing horror icons from his childhood. He began painting again.

And, surprising no one but himself, he found quick success. He posted pictures of his paintings on Facebook, and people reached out to buy them. On a whim, he submitted some of his photography to a gallery show in St. Louis and was accepted. With his husband’s encouragement, he quit his job and rented studio space in Godfrey so he could start painting full-time. Within a month, he was accepted into two more gallery shows.

It has been a whirlwind, and Mooneyham joked that his “right-brained” friends are concerned by the seemingly sudden switch. But to him, his story makes a lot of sense. Art has always been there. Art has always been the means of survival.

“Even though the hats have changed several times over the years, the artwork has always been the foundation that’s gotten me through,” he said. “Life is much, much better for me. I haven’t had a drink in almost 20 years. I have a home. My bills are low. I’ve helped a lot of people and I’m trying to think of ways to have a voice and still help other people. I’m an independent artist. I have my own studio.”

And now, he’s hoping to inspire others. Mooneyham’s catchphrase is “Yes, you can.” Even if you’re a queer person in a rural community. Even if you struggled in school. Even if you “live in a cornfield.” Even if you feel alone. You can do it, and you don’t have to do it by yourself.

“No matter what it is. If you want to paint, if you want to draw, if you want to dance: Yes, you can. And I also wanted to get the message out there to people that doing these things will help with any kind of trauma and stress,” he said. “If you feel like you’re alone, things are harder. But if you realize that you’re not, things are much easier. You feel validated. And sometimes people need help finding the way. I really can’t stress enough that you don’t have to be on the bridge to call.”

For more information about Charles Mooneyham’s art, visit his official website at or check out his Facebook page and Instagram profile. He has art at the Soulard Art Gallery through the end of May and will be part of a group show called "Pushing Up Artists" at Artisans in the Loop opening May 24, 2024. A free reception is open to the public from 7-9 p.m. on May 24, 2024, at Artisans in the Loop.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat at

Photo by Tonetta Fredrickson.

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