His art sends a clear message: Don't let go of lifetime dream
By Haley Edwards
Seattle Times staff reporter
Photo- BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Seattle artist Brom Wikstrom uses his mouth to paint with watercolors. More than half of his life has been without the use of his legs and with only limited use of his arms. He injured his spinal cord diving into the Mississippi River when he was 21.
Brom Wikstrom, one of the newest members appointed this month to the Washington State Arts Commission, knew all his life he'd be an artist.
He spent hours as a kid watching his father, a local art director, paint his stylized watercolors, animals and nudes, their limbs every which way. He used to copy them in his sketchbooks, clutching black-tipped pens in his small hands.
He and his father used to walk around their Magnolia neighborhood, talking about Picasso, and shades of light, and how everyday things like the houses scrabbling up the hillside; or a bread wrapper, delicate and symmetrical were moments of perfect beauty. Works of art.
And then one day, everything changed.
Wikstrom was 21. ("Was it really 33 years ago already?" he asks). It was a Sunday. July 1975, and he was working in a neon-light factory in New Orleans, living away from home for the first time. He'd slept-in that day and when he got up at 11 a.m., the air was already thick. He'd headed to the river to go for a swim.
And that's when it happened. In five seconds, maybe less: He peeled off his T-shirt, curled his toes into the sand (what if he had stopped there?) and bounded toward the water's edge (did he hesitate, just as his feet lifted off the ground?). His body arched into the murky water of the Mississippi, his hands sliced into the winking surface, then his hair, then his chest. The water closed around him, cool and smooth and brown.
And that's the last he remembers.
Except the searing pain. The suffocation. Then the numbness.
Someone called his name.
The next seven weeks are hazy for Wikstrom. He remembers the special gurney they used to extract him from the river, where he had hit shallow water and injured his spinal cord; the ward at Charity Hospital ("Everyone's urine sacks were emptied into the same container"); the feeding tubes. He remembers a collapsed lung. A break at the fifth and sixth vertebra. The word "quadriplegia." Someone offered him last rites.
Mostly, he remembers the black line a doctor drew high across his chest, shoulder to shoulder, below which he would feel nothing for the rest of his life.
But even then at 21 years old, awaking to find his arms limp and pinned to his sides he'd still known he'd be an artist.
Even then, before he'd heard of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists of the World, a prestigious organization of disabled artists, of which he'd become a member in 1985.
Even then, when the idea of traveling to Hungary and Austria, as he did a few months ago (weathering the cobblestones in his wheelchair) seemed entirely out of the question. Even then.
New use for mouth
Because at what point do you give up your dreams? When you can't sit up in bed? When you have no way to move your arms, your legs, your body? Or is it when you watch the heartbreak in your father's eyes, when he sees you for the first time since the accident?
"It wasn't about giving up a dream," says Wikstrom, now 53. "I didn't really have a choice. I remember thinking, OK, I can't use my hands? Someone give me a pen. I'll use my mouth instead." And he did.
It was painstaking at first. Scribbles. Rickety lines. A sore jaw. His sketches were "atrocious," he says. Nothing more than black strokes. Jackson Pollocks by necessity, rather than by design.
"Pathetic" is how he remembers himself.
Finally, in September 1975, almost two months after the accident, Wikstrom was flown back to the University of Washington Hospital for rehab, where he stayed for a year.
Consumed by painting
That's when everything changed again. Only more gradually this time.
His friends from Queen Anne High School stopped coming around. He didn't have full control over his bodily functions. Everything, all the little things, were hard to do. His old life Bumbershoot, flirting with the girls at the Maple Leaf Bar, camping in the woods would never be the same again.
Partly as a way to keep his mind off himself (his self-pity, his depression, his fierce, thwarted independence), he began painting all the time, 10 to 12 hours a day.
And after a while he began to learn the feel of a paint brush in his mouth. He learned how to hold it steady, how to make straight lines by leaning over his paper and drawing his neck up, nice and smooth.
Thirty-three years later, Wikstrom is the artist he always knew he'd be. His works are now intricate, detailed and precise. They move through the different styles he once practiced with his hands: Shades of Mark Tobey and M.C. Escher. Angles like Picasso. Bright purples and reds. Greens, bright like Seurat. But that's no longer what he's most proud of.
"The most important thing a person can do is help others, especially kids," he says. And that's exactly what he's been doing since 1977.
On busy track
A year after he was released from full-time rehab, Wikstrom began volunteering 20 hours a week at Seattle Children's Hospital, doing art projects with disabled kids. After that, he got involved with the Seattle Arts Commission, working with special-education teachers to integrate alternative therapy into their curriculum.
One time, after lecturing dental students at the UW Dental School about art therapy, he met a pretty young hygienist named Anne, who later became his wife. He and Anne now live a few blocks away from the home he grew up in on Magnolia. They're kept busy by Anne's two daughters and their five children, all of whom live in Texas and visit regularly.
In 1985, Wikstrom got his first financial break: The Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists of the World hired him to create artwork for greeting cards and calendars.
And now, this month, Gov. Chris Gregoire appointed Wikstrom as a member of the Washington State Arts Commission, where he will advise the governor on grants funding, with a particular emphasis on handicap-accessible art programs.
In his studio, Wikstom's sketchbooks still bubble over with watercolors: Houses scrabbling up a hillside. A bread wrapper in still life.
Moments of perfect beauty. Works of art.