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Art for a healthy life (12/30/2012)
By Emily Buss

     Despite the fact that Winona artist Thomas Nyberg has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he is able to express his feelings through his artwork.

"Comet", the winning piece Nyberg submitted to The Pump House Regional Art Center for the "1 Foot in the Door" contest. Out of nearly 190 works of art, his was chosen as an example of excellence.

Art is an escape for many artists. It is an opportunity to delve into the innermost workings of the mind and create an oasis of the imagination. For Winona artist Thomas Nyberg, art is just that. Since being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2007, Nyberg has, at times, found it difficult to control the symptoms, but with a pen in his hand, he has found solace.

Most artists spend a fortune on art supplies. A few hundred dollars for sketch books, another couple hundred for the good paints, and even more for brushes, drawing utensils, and canvas. However, Nyberg creates his intricate works of art with a simple inexpensive black, blue, or red ballpoint pen.

A tortured artist

Drawing has always come easily to Nyberg, ever since he was a young child. When he was just 15 years old, he saw four portraits in a Boys' Life Magazine and decided to try his hand at portrait drawing. He submitted his material to the official Boy Scouts publication, where they landed in the hands of legendary cartoonist Charles Schulz.

"They sent a scout down to my hometown, which was Toronto, Iowa, and told me that I had received an 'A' on my drawings," Nyberg said. "They asked me to come up to Minneapolis to attend an art academy, but my father didn't think that was appropriate."

Even though his plans to attend art school were dashed, Nyberg always kept the creative flame alive in his heart. In 1976, fresh out of high school, Nyberg joined the army. As part of General Colin Powell's 101st Airborne Division, Nyberg quickly moved up the ranks. He was soon awarded the designation of Military Occupational Specialty 44B, given to skilled metal workers.

Military-tailored educational courses were offered to interested soldiers as a way to learn trades that could be used after combat duty was completed. Nyberg perfected his welding and fabrication skills through such courses. He took two semesters of drafting through an education program at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, and for more than a decade, performed highly-skilled machine shop work for his country.

For the next 20 years, Nyberg proudly served in the military, with tours in Germany, England, and the Middle East. When he retired in 1996, he settled back into a life in Winona with his wife, Kay. However, Nyberg said, stress from his experiences in the military slowly began to weigh him down.

"She began to think I was mysterious; she said I was not acting [like] myself," Nyberg explained. "I think there was a part of me that thought this change in my behavior was related to my 20 years in the army. And then, in 2007 we divorced."

Nyberg described his divorce as being like a mushroom cloud: explosive, sudden, and far-reaching. Combined with the trauma of war that was still unaddressed, his failed marriage, Nyberg said, was the tipping point. He checked himself into Gundersen Lutheran hospital, only to check out shortly thereafter.

"Kay called and said that I needed to go back to the doctor and warned that if I didn't, it would be the last time she would offer help," he explained. "I took those words of wisdom to heart. I checked back into Gundersen Lutheran and was there for about a month. I was then diagnosed with bipolar disorder and began treatment to cope with it."

Nyberg, a religious man his entire life, said he literally let go and let God. While he does not affiliate with any particular religious sect, he credits his will power to rise above the diagnosis to his strongly rooted belief in God and to the power of the pen.

"One day, I just started doodling again," Nyberg said. A little more than 11 months ago, he started to think bigger, and became serious about his passion for art. "My roommate and [my] landlord at the time saw my doodles and said 'man, those are really good.' The doodles were just prototypes. But, they asked if I could go bigger. I said, 'of course I can.'"

From struggles to success

When all the world is asleep, catching up on much needed shut-eye, Nyberg is wide awake creating his next masterpiece. Between the wee hours of midnight and 6 a.m., he is crafting works of art that look as if they are out of a science fiction novel. Ironically, science fiction does not hold his interest.

"The inspiration for my pieces just comes from my brain; it's like lightening," Nyberg said.

Within the last 10 years, studies conducted at the Stanford School of Medicine have linked bipolar disorder with high creativity levels. Research has shown the dramatic shifts in mood and energy commonly seen in people with such disorders could be a creative advantage. Famous landscape and portrait artist Vincent van Gogh, poet Edgar Allan Poe, and Norwegian painter Edvard Munch all were reported to have had bipolar disorder. "I'd like to think I'm in that good company," Nyberg said.

His artwork is defined by exact, straight lines, perfectly rounded curves, intricate geometric shapes, and often, an all-seeing eye. Graphic artists have tried to copy his drawings, Nyberg said, but with little success. As you look at his pieces, it is easy to imagine yourself looking into the future at new, emerging architecture.

"Some people think that my disorder is taboo, that my artwork is strange. But, if God created me, how can I be taboo?" Nyberg wondered.

Strange or not, his artwork is now award-winning. For the first time since his early teens, Nyberg submitted his artwork for review. The Pump House Regional Arts Center in La Crosse recently held the "1 Foot in the Door" exhibition. Regional artists submitted nearly 190 pieces, which had to fit within an area of one-square foot. Nyberg took the opportunity to submit three of his best pieces, and won a white ribbon for excellence.

"Honestly, I was shocked," Nyberg laughed. "I was also very humbled. For my first time doing something like this and beating out a lot of other people, there isn't anything better."

A humble artist, Nyberg said he was grateful to hear encouraging words from those working at the art center, and accepted their invitation to submit work in the coming months.

While his bipolar disorder is under control, he said there are still days when he struggles. He described a mental high and low scale that often dictates his moods. Between extreme positives and extreme negatives, Nyberg said he tries to find a happy medium. With the help of non-debilitating medicine, a firm grasp on his faith, and a passion for creativity, Nyberg forges ahead, ballpoint pen in hand.

"I live in a chaotic world, but my art takes me out of that. I've always believed that the pen is mightier than the sword," Nyberg explained. "It's hard for me not to find the beauty in life. It's like an obsession. I can't stop drawing. But, I don't want to. Because, if I stop, it's like I'm dead in the water." 


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