Artistic passion takes disabled artist to royal audience

by Jerry Sitser Ballard News Tribune June 22nd 1994

When Brom Wikstrom broke his neck 20 years ago, he didn't know if he would survive. Struggling through that astounding, near-death experience, he couldn't even consider whether he'd ever paint again.

But last week, the Magnolia artist demonstrated his will both to live and create as he presented his works to the visiting royal couple of Japan at an exhibition in Washington, D.C.Wikstrom met their Majesties, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, from a wheelchair. Left a quadriplegic by an accident in 1975, he has found new ways of expressing himself artistically by learning to paint with his mouth.

Several disabled artists were featured in the exhibit, sponsored by the Very Special Arts Gallery. Very Special Arts (VSA) is an international program that promotes creative writing, dance, drama, music and visual arts for people with mental and physical disabilities. The program was founded in 1974 by Jean Kennedy Smith as an educational affiliate of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Japan's royal couple were invited to the gallery during their recent visit to the United States. At the exhibit, William Kennedy Smith, son of Jean, purchased one of Wikstrom's paintings as a gift for Ted Kennedy Jr. It was, Wikstrom said, a seascape that Emperor Akihito had particularly enjoyed during the visit. The artist also gave the Japanese Embassy a gift of a floral pencil drawing.

They seemed very peaceful and gentle Wikstrom said. They really made me feel at ease and spent more time with me than I expected. The empress asked us all if we had ever been to Japan. Wikstrom never has been to Japan, but he was in Europe just last May as he exhibited his works at the 1994 International VSA Festival in Brussels, Belgium. As it was his first trip to the continent, he wasn't, he said, about to miss any galleries. So he visited them all, along with his wife Anne.

 In Liechtenstein, Wikstrom met for the first time with one of his regular sponsors, the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists. The organization represents him around the world to sell his art for such uses as greeting cards.

The artist has also exhibited at various shows around the state as well as at his brother Bill's frame shop in Wallingford, the Arthead Gallery. Last year, his work appeared in a show at the Nordic Heritage Museum produced by the Puget Sound Group of Northwest Painters.

Following his crippling accident, he began learning to manipulate a stick with his mouth to handle many daily chores. He said holding a paint brush was a natural extension of the new skill I was developing. The commitment to continue practicing his art was made, Wikstrom explained, about two years after the accident while he was teaching art to young patients at Children's Hospital on a Seattle Arts Commission grant. Here were all these kids dealing with things that were a whole lot worse than what I had, he said. I gained a lot of strength from those kids and realized I didn't have time to feel sorry for myself. Wikstrom also keeps busy teaching art at Seattle public schools and works part-time at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington.

One of his motivations to work and paint, he said, was what he called an astounding, near-death experience following his accident had also given him a sense of how precious life is and the need to make the most of your life and share yourself with others. Ironically, Wikstrom had actually toyed with mouth painting just prior to the accident while he was working as a crab processor in Dutch Harbor. I got into a conversation with a musician there and he asked me what art is. I wanted to make the point that you can't really define it. So I picked up a brush, put in my mouth and proceeded to scribble with it. I told him, 'This is art because I say it is. And now, I'm painting that way every day!