Art wins out over handicap
Valley Daily News, Peggy Ziebarth, Dec.24,1987

As finishing strokes go on the bold 30-foot mural on Kent's Special Populations Resource Center, artist Brom Wikstrom has watched progress of the project with a special pride. Wikstrom, a quadraplegic since he broke his neck in a dive into the Mississippi River, shaped the graphic design for the huge mural with a paintbrush held in his teeth. "They're following my art very closely," Wikstrom says, his delight showing in a low, warm laugh that punctutates his conversation.

The mural - in a rainbow of colors - is still untitled, but the work is from his It Figures series, Wikstrom says. Kent's mural is not the first commission or artistic recognition that has come Wikstrom's way by any means.But it's certainly the biggest. 'Nothing like 30 feet,' says Wikstrom, his laugh rumbling again. And in view of city estimates that the work is visible to 15,500 passing cars a day, it's easily his most public work.

New Orleans was hot and muggy that summer in 1975 when Wikstrom's disastrous dive into the Mississippi put most of his youthful dreams on hold. Wikstrom, then 21, and a friend had gone south for the Mardis Gras and decided to stick around for awhile before setting out again on their vagabond adventures. 'So many fabulous places' Wikstrom says softly, recalling plans for hitchhiking and riding the rails to see what they could of the world.

Wikstrom spent seven weeks in the New Orleans hospital in critical condition, then was transferred to SeattIe's University Hospital to begin learning to cope with the paralysis that resulted from his accident.

It was nearly 10 months before he was discharged from University Hospital - many of them spent in deep depression. But now Wikstrom is shaping new dreams - and those dreams often find expression in bold, graphic strokes in a spectrum of colors. He's become a member of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists Worldwide. 'It's a fabulous organization,' he says. 'There are 40 artists in the U.S., closer to 2 or 300 in the world.'

He's also been accepted as a member of the Puget Sound Group of Northwest Painters. 'I grew up around this group, Wikstrom says. My father is a past president - my brother is a member.'

Artistic bents just seem to run in the family. His work is beginning to find it's way into a number of galleries and has been featured in exhibits including a recent show in the Thomas Burke Museum, where Wikstrom works as the phone receptionist 20 hours a week.'I' ve always been fascinated by Pacific Northwest Indian art,' he says ''It's really an interesting place.

Wikstrom says his mouth-painting technique is still evolving, becoming more fluid. 'I've gone through different periods. I started doing scribbles - but wanted to work figuratively - geometrics. His style now is ''pretty tight.'he says, a product of his painting technique. But he's learning to loosen it up. Right now he works almost exclusively in watercolors, plans to move into acrylics. It does take me a while to get these out, he adds, with a laugh.

But as his professional credentials and resume of shows and exhibits expands, Wikstrom still finds time to keep a schedule of volunteer bookings. His first volunteer effort was at Children's Hospital and Medical Center. He was there to help the youngsters in an arts therapy program. But the therapy worked both ways. Wikstrom says. 'Those children - who had been disabled all their lives - taught me not to be so bitter and angry . . not to take things so seriously,' he says.

His early volunteer efforts resulted in his appointment as artist-in-residence under a grant through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). 'I mainly worked on the teen and rehab floors, working with new quads and paras,'' Wikstrom tosses off the medical jargon with the ease of long exposure. 'I never had anyone to look to when I had my accident.' ''I still volunteer there - to paint for a few hours,'he says. ' don't have any children my self yet. I think that helps fill the gap.

He also taught at Artists Unlimited, an arts program for persons with cerebral palsy, which now has a home at Edmonds Community College. He also makes school appearances to demonstrate his arts technique. He also spends time every week as a volunteer broadcaster for the Library for the Blind, reading newscasts, weather forecasts - ''even Dear Abby,'he adds, laughing.

As his public exposure increases, Wikstrom's name has hit a number of lists in the arts community. When the Kent Arts Commission published its specifications for an art work to reflect the spirit of the Special Populations Resource Center, Wikstrom received a prospectus from several sources who thought he might be just the right man for the job. He hopes one day to achieve financial independence, Wikstrom says.

Home base now is a residence he's buying with his brother in the Magnolia district. But independence is hard won, he says candidly. ''I want to continue teaching art - maybe get an arts degree so I'm more certified.' His first love will always be art, Wikstrom says, but his dip into broadcasting has opened a door on a new dream. He might just manage a broadcast booth with a mouthwand from his wheelchair, Wikstrom muses, . . . some kind of broadcasting.

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