Five Questions For: Nikki McClure
You started in Olympia’s underground arts scene. Does it feel weird to be in a museum?
I wake up thinking, is this really happening? And then I start hyperventilating. It’s odd. But I love the opportunity to tell the story of my life over 15 years. You can’t do that in a café or a gallery, because in those settings things have to be sold. In a museum, you’re just sharing. This is the best opportunity to explore my larger themes.
How would you describe those themes?
My work is about hope and optimism—by using humanity’s strengths, we can fix the mess we’re in. If we’re going to have a world full of images, why not have images of real people doing real things?
Are those ideas why every semi-crunchy Portland household seems to have your calendar on the kitchen wall?
I only sell about 17,000 calendars, so it can’t be every kitchen. The pictures resonate in ways I don’t anticipate. I just did the calendar picture for December 2012, which no one will see for, what, 18 months? But I hear all the time that a particular month’s image meant something to someone. A clairvoyant once told me I was clairvoyant. Then again, her check bounced, so maybe she wasn’t that clairvoyant.
You helped popularize the folksy imagery—birds, trees, kids—that defines the Northwest craft aesthetic. Now that the TV show Portlandia satirizes the urge to “put a bird on it,” are you worried about becoming cliché?
It’s funny, because (Portlandia cocreator) Carrie Brownstein has a bunch of my work, and all of it shows birds. So I understand what they’re saying. I have a background in natural history, so if I make a picture of a black-capped chickadee, specifically, there’s a reason. In general, though, I think it’s great for people to make things. So, yeah—if you made the bird, go ahead and put a bird on it!
Is this show part of a certain Olympia-Portland connection?
You mean the cultural mass exodus from Olympia to Portland? It seems like Olympia people turn 30 and say to themselves, “Oh—I, too, can have a job at Wieden & Kennedy.” I get it. It’s a bigger town. There’s a dating pool. It’s flatter, so it’s easier to ride a bike. You can have a creative job. In Olympia, creative people sort of have to figure out their own subsistence, and that’s hard. Portland’s a great town—I love going there. But it’s too big for me.