Nothing out of reach: Magnolia mouth painter Brom Wikstrom opens new exhibit

Life itself so often gets in the way of living.

To be alive - to be alive and human - is to know a vague yet burning desire for fulfillment. We seek it in the work we do, in the relationships we share, but our focus is often dissipated by the messiness and complications of daily existence.

Magnolia resident Brom Wikstrom has struggled more than most folks, yet he's found success as an artist, educator and administrator both because and in spite of the challenges he's faced.

"Before my injury, I started out as a commercial artist and sign painter," Wikstrom said recently. "I figured I'd just do my fine arts for my own enjoyment."

In 1975, Wikstrom, then 21, was living and working as a commercial artist in New Orleans, La. On a sweltering midsummer day, he went down to the banks of the Mississippi River to cool off. He dove in headfirst and was met with a shock that changed the course of his life.

The water was only 5 inches deep. A massive spinal chord injury left him quadriplegic and bound to a wheelchair.

After a long and arduous rehabilitation, Wikstrom returned to his hometown of Seattle and re-embarked on a career as a painter. Because he could no longer use his hands to paint, he had to adapt to a new technique.

"It wasn't until close to the end of my year in rehab that I started putting a paintbrush in my teeth," he said. "I'd used my mouth to hold a stick for typing on a keyboard or turning pages in a book, so it seemed like a natural extension."

As a mouth painter, Wikstrom found that he could pursue his artistic interests in ways that seemed out of reach or impractical before his injury.

"To try and raise a family and have a career from selling in galleries and shows is pretty hit and miss," he said. "But when I moved back in with my folks in Magnolia, I was getting Social Security and didn't have anyone breathing down my neck to get a job. I just focused all of my frustration and anxiety about being quadriplegic into art."

Wikstrom is a member of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (AMFPA), a world wide organization that provides education, income and community for artists with disabilities. The association also provides a way for these artists to distribute their art, focusing on their creative abilities as opposed to their physical constraints. It does a brisk international business in prints, postcards and calendars.

Conventions are held on a regular basis for association members, but Wikstrom said he wants to take the group's collective efforts a step further.

"I've been advocating with the group to have a network of galleries around the world," he explained, "but they don't really want to get into the gallery business on top of everything else they're doing... Then I saw in a recent newsletter that they were going to profile different association members who own their own galleries, so I figured that I might as well give it a shot."

Enter the Arthead Gallery.

Owned and operated by Brom's brother William Wikstrom since the mid 1980s, Arthead is a gallery and frame shop in the Greenlake area. The Wikstrom brothers are now working together to turn the location into a destination gallery space.

"Since my brother owns the place," Wikstrom says, "it didn't really take much for me to get involved. It had been a print shop before, so it was all stained and scuffed and in pretty sad shape."

Wikstrom says he stepped in and helped bankroll a revamping of the space, which involved cleaning up, refinishing the floor, painting and so on. "Now it looks as nice as any gallery around," he said. "We started having shows last December and we've had new shows every month since.

Wikstrom says his role as gallery director had led to an exploration of art from another angle. "So trying to find time to paint gets tougher and tougher, especially when it's beautiful and sunny outside," he said. "The Arthead thing has been really good for me, because it forces me to focus a little more on producing my own pieces to show."

One reason Wikstrom wanted to renovate the gallery space was to provide a local venue for his friend and fellow association member, Felix Espinoza Vargas. Wikstrom met the Peruvian mouth painter about a year ago through the organization.

"Felix comes up here periodically to stay with an American host in Eastern Washington, near Winthrop," Wikstrom said. "The pieces he sells... are more the traditional watercolor tourist art that you see - a lot of landscapes, Peruvian street scenes. But then he brought up these intricate icons with angels and saints wearing Spanish colonial outfits and carrying muskets and I thought, 'Whoa, this is really different.'"

"A Matter of Spirit," a joint show presenting the work of Vargas and Wikstrom, opened at the Arthead Gallery on July 30 and runs through the end of August. The show features Vargas' iconography, wood cuts and assorted works in watercolor, oil and acrylic, along with a modest collection of Wikstrom's watercolor work.

Wikstrom said he has deep respect for Vargas as an artist, but also as a person who has taken huge strides in overcoming his disability.

Wikstrom's genuine respect and admiration for fellow strugglers is central to his strength as both an artist and a human being.

"What really made a huge difference in my life was volunteering at Children's Hospital," he said. "I think anyone who's having a hard time and is missing direction in life should go help someone else. It really keeps you from getting too wrapped up in your own problems."

Sean Molnar lives in Seattle.[[In-content Ad]]