Living in the shadow of a progressive, incurable disease, Minn. man paints past ALS
CLOQUET, Minn. — Bradon "Bo" Setterquist's life has changed dramatically in the six months since he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS.
From living the good life in a northern California apartment, he has moved to an assisted living facility in his hometown of Cloquet, where he's starting to need help eating.
"I can no longer lift my hands up high," Setterquist, 56, said last week in the sitting area of his comfortable, brightly decorated room in the Fond du Lac Assisted Living Building. "Last night, I was unable to use a spoon, so I was kind of sad. It kind of gets to you sometimes."
Setterquist knows he is living in the shadow of a progressive, incurable disease. ALS, which is diagnosed in a little more than 6,000 people in the U.S. annually, attacks the nervous system, weakening muscles. It's famously associated with baseball legend Lou Gehrig. Actor-playwright Sam Shepard recently died of ALS.
But Setterquist — who started out at Nordstrom selling shoes in its Mall of America store and worked his way up to managing hundreds of employees in major cities — doesn't let things get to him much.
No longer able to indulge the artistic hobby he took up in his early 30s while living in New York, Setterquist is learning to grasp and guide the paintbrush with his lips and teeth.
The suggestion came from his sister, Sue Gonzales, who was with Setterquist in February when he was diagnosed at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center.
"I just hated to see him give it up because it makes him feel better, and it's just kind of a way to let his emotions out," Gonzales said in a phone interview from Seattle.
Gonzales, 60, is involved in the arts in Seattle, prescreening films for the Seattle International Film Festival and belonging to the Seattle Art Museum. She's familiar with the stories of artists who have overcome obstacles to continue their work, she said.
Gonzales has power of attorney for Setterquist and is also his "super-duper supporter," he said. He recalls feeling down when she suggested he paint by mouth, and he initially dismissed the idea. "But then I thought, 'Well why the heck not?' "
Taking on a challenge in the face of difficulty is characteristic of their family, Gonzales said. The siblings grew up in a family of seven children whose parents owned and operated the Public Market Grocery Store in Cloquet. Their parents were "mellow, happy people," but it was a large family and there was work to be done.
"There wasn't any tolerance for moping," she said.
With both parents and several siblings still living in Cloquet, it made sense for Setterquist to return home, Gonzales said. In fact, their father, Jerald Setterquist, already had a room at the assisted-living center available because the family has Native American heritage.
"The social worker said the most important thing was for someone in that condition to be in a highly social setting," she said.
It has been a rough stretch for the Setterquist family. Jerald died last month, Bo Setterquist said. Their mother is in hospice care.
But Setterquist has long known that art serves as an outlet for him.
"I just like creating something," he said. "You have this blank canvas and start, and you build and build on it. And then when it's done, I feel really good about it."
Although he took one art class in college — he attended both the University of Wisconsin-Superior and the University of Minnesota Duluth — Setterquist said he didn't really get interested until he was in his early 30s, seeing the artwork in the home of his well-to-do in-laws in New York. Among their possessions was an original piece by Jean-Michel Basquiat, the late-20th century artist whose works include one that recently sold for $110.5 million.
Setterquist liked Basquiat's style and mimicked it as he starting painting, leading his father-in-law to start referring to him as "Bosquiat."
'I can do it'
A larger, Cloquet-themed work, painted recently while Setterquist lived in Boston, occupies a prime place on his bedroom wall. Another wall contains a display of the political aspect of Setterquist's life — clippings from a run for mayor of St. Paul in 1993.
On the far side of his bed, an easel displays his work in progress. A face, painted in straight lines, dominates the page. The number "3" — the number of his hockey jersey when he was in school and the soccer jersey number for one of his daughters — occupies the lower right side. After dipping his brush into oil paint with his clenched hands, he transfers the brush to his mouth, remarkably able to carry on a conversation as he applies paint, giving the face on the canvas a reddish flush.
It's his first work in which he has attempted to paint with his mouth, Setterquist said, but he feels it will be a keeper. He plans to give it to one of his daughters, who, like his ex-wife, live in California but already have paid visits to Cloquet.
No one has to tell Setterquist about the disease's debilitating aspects. A vigorous man who once worked on oil rigs in Wyoming and used to play basketball every day, he now gets tired quickly during a short walk. He said he expects to eventually be in a wheelchair.
But Setterquist is focusing on what he can do, not what he has lost. And what he can do still includes painting.
"It's going to take a little bit because it's slower," Setterquist said. "But I know I can do it. And then once I'm done it's going to be even cooler."