From the VSA Arts 25th Anniversary book: "The Journey to Here" 25 Stories for 25 Years
Written by Alexandra Rabins

in our sunroom
Photograph
David Reader
"I sure didn't get into working with kids to become a role model. But it's worked out that way".

In the thirty some years since Brom Wikstrom recuperated from a serious diving accident he has grown into an acclaimed artist.

In addition to his active role in the Seattle arts community, he is a member of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painters, an international coalition of artists that earns money from the sale of their greeting cards, calendars, and gift wrap.

He credits his work with and through VSA as a deciding factor in his acceptance into this selective group of artists.

At the Seattle Children’s Hospital, where he worked, a lot of the staff were volunteers. And I really learned the value of giving. Any kind of financial benefits were secondary. It felt so right and so good to be able to do it I knew that that’s what I needed to do as much as possible. It’s not like the saints or something, you don’t need to forfeit your own life. But when called upon to give some aid or comfort to people, I think that makes God happy.

VSA came into existence a year before my injury. Seattle was one of the first cities to host a local VSA festival. It was my very first art festival, and I didn’t really know what I was going to do at the thing. So I took some of the kids from the hospital with me and showed my work and theirs.

I’ve seen not only the impact that working with children has had on my life, but the impact that it’s had on the kids. It’s been gratifying to see the kids feel a little more free to explore themselves creatively. That’s important, because television and all the magazines celebrate beautiful bodies.

There’s a sense that if you don’t have a body that works properly, you’re sort of an inferior person. At least that’s the impression that I get every time I look at the mass media. There really wasn’t anybody out there with a disability that you could look to and say, There’s somebody who isn’t perfectly physically fit, but they’re happy and they look fulfilled.

A lot of my feelings have to do with my being a role model, both for younger kids and for people who are newly injured. I’m in a unique position to do that in a positive way without subjecting myself to what I consider the exploitation and patronization that some people with disabilities endure in order to get what they need, whether that’s attention or sales of their artwork or what have you. It’s an interesting thing because people like to show kindness, and I don’t want to misinterpret that as pity. There’s kind of a fine line between wanting to help people get ahead and using them as kind of exploitation.

I went to VSA’s first national festival in 1979. When I look back on it now, that was kind of my coming out too. Because I was twenty-five, and I’d put in three-and-a-half to four years of building my career, and VSA was hosting this wonderful festival where I got to meet Andy Warhol and Jamie Wyeth. Warhol came over and watched me paint for a while. I was doing a portrait. You can you imagine how nervous I was with that guy looking over my shoulder.

That festival made me see that there was a future in art and I was able to explore possible ways of pursuing a career in the arts. It was great to know that there were options. I knew art was a business, but I didn’t know anything at all about art administration, art education, or art therapy.

The collages I do today bring a balance to the commercial work I do for greeting cards and calendars. The Association of Mouth and Foot Painters want me to produce work that has a broad appeal, and I don’t mind that at all. So I do positive upbeat things for them, and I enjoy the work and the challenge of it. But for my own paintings, I do something darker, more provocative. For a while, I deliberately stayed away from my darker side. That didn’t start showing up until my life was happy. Being with my wife Anne’ and having success has allowed me to be safe with exploring these darker themes.

In a sense. I feel like I’m a link to all the other artists who’ve gone before me. I love reading about the lives of artists. I use art as my way of prying loose the secrets of the universe. Picasso once said that painting was more powerful than him, that he sees where the art takes him. I’m interested to see where the art takes me.

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