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Saturday, January 25, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Robert Wikstrom turned art into business

Seattle Times staff reporter

Robert Clements Wikstrom lived the dream of many a boy. He got paid to draw rockets, missiles and airplanes.

The former space illustrator who drew up aircraft designs for Boeing died Jan. 16 of heart complications. He was 80.

Mr. Wikstrom worked for Boeing from 1962 to 1967, drawing sketches and models that engineers dreamed up during the Cold War. Once, when he was asked to draw his ideal rocket, his five sons thought they had the coolest dad in their Magnolia neighborhood.

One project, which involved designing a reusable military spacecraft, never got off the ground, recalled his son Brom Wikstrom of the sleek, black model his father worked on at home.

Mr. Wikstrom's personal water paintings were exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum, but his sons lamented that the public never saw his best work.

"A lot of his best paintings were stamped secret and put into a drawer," said son William Wikstrom, a gallery owner who tried to get copies of his father's work from Boeing.

Mr. Wikstrom grew up in Ketchikan, Alaska, before serving a short stint in the Army during World War II. On the GI Bill, he attended three art schools, learning from renowned West Coast artist Rex Brandt and Rico Lebrun at the Art Center, the Jepson Art Institute and the Chouinard Art Institute, all in Los Angeles.

He moved to Spokane to start his art career and married Dorothy Vollmer in 1951. Later, he moved for the Boeing job but was laid off in 1967. Looking back, his family said that allowed him to broaden his skills, from painting birds as a hobby to running his own commercial art business.

Family tragedy struck in 1975 when son Brom, an artist, dived into a shallow part of the Mississippi River and was paralyzed from the shoulders down. Just as Mr. Wikstrom was adamant about following his dreams, he didn't want his son to give up his. He set up a studio in his Edmonds home for Brom, who now paints greeting cards and other projects holding a brush in his mouth.

The family always knew where to find their father: in his studio, painting birds, usually with the sound of jazz great Sidney Bechet echoing through the room.

That's where the family found Mr. Wikstrom Jan. 16 — in his chair, in front of his art table. It was the way he would have wanted to go, William Wikstrom said.

William Wikstrom recalled his father sold a bird painting for $600 last year, besting his two sons, whose work sold for less. "Our paintings were twice as big, and he got three times more than we did," William said. "That gave him bragging rights for the year."

Mr. Wikstrom is survived by sons William, Brom, Rodger, Chris and Eric; his wife, Dorothy, and two grandchildren.

Remembrances may be made to the Puget Sound Group of Northwest Painters Scholarship Fund, 3824 Evanston Ave. N, Seattle, WA 98103. The Arthead Gallery in Seattle will host a memorial exhibition of his work March 15-29.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com.

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