A Freakshow Ensconced by Luxurious New Apartments
How is there still a grassroots oddities museum between all this luxury apartment construction in Northwest Portland, Oregon?
The Peculiarium, located at 2234 NW Thurman St, is an amalgam of art gallery, old horror movie prop depository and roadside attraction. Inside is a concession stand that serves dried bugs and at any point there are at least a handful of crowd to gawk. This humble oddities gallery, co-owner Mike Welkin believes, is able to sustain clustered between so much expensive new high-rise apartment construction because it offers a genuine experience and not just more spots for themed dining in the popular NW 21Ave - 22 AVE neighborhood of Portland, Or.
The story of the Peculiarium and its owners, the Freaky But True artist group is a testament to finding your own market by becoming disgusted with contemporary cultural tropes. It’s also about Sasquatch and the culture jamming practice of non-elective retroactive collaboration.
FPM: So Freaky But True opened the Peculiarium six years ago?
Mike Welkin: Yeah. Tax day 2011. This is our first physical location. With our umbrella name, Freaky But True, I’ve been doing zines, movies and artwork and art shows with friends since back in 1983. This is the first time we rented a building for a long term. I was a commercial director for Liaka when they had a commercial division. I was never in the movie side. I joined the studio that used to do the California Raisins and M&M’s in 1996. I was an animator and director. I worked on the M&M’s commercials. You know, the horrible little candy dudes? The yellow one and the red one. I started as an animator on those. Then I helmed the Mini Wheats guys who would hop on your shoulder and say stuff like ‘let’s go in the hot tub!’ And all that paid for [the Peculiarium] because I was making director money, which was phenomenal. I was also upgrading houses and riding the Portland market then too. So I had some extra money to open the place.
Here’s an interesting rumor. So Matt Groening used to run around in this neighborhood as a kid, he went to school up here. The Peculiarium's landlord, who passed away four years ago, was named Homer and he was this goofy, fat dude. He used to own a little convenience store by where Matt Groening went to school. And you know that all the streets in the Simpsons are named after blocks in Portland. [The Peculiarium's landlord] Homer and his sister Patty used to come around here all the time. There’s a lot of history here.
FPM: Do you have M&M’s toppings at the Peculiarium Ice Cream bar?
Mike Welkin: No. I hate them actually. We had them when we were doing those commercials, the company would just send us tons of boxes and as we would walk down the [studio] hallway you could just grab a pack and [munching noises]. One time I grabbed one and it just tasted like chemicals and I haven't had them since. They’re a horrible company. Mars. They are evil. Fuck them. M&M/Mars does not sell stock. They have no shareholders and can do whatever they want. They are also one of the most non-philanthropic of all the billionaires. There’s three of them in total that own the entire empire. It’s all palm oil chocolate and slave oil chocolate. So I guess it’s cosmic retribution that their money funded this place.
FPM: How big is the Freaky But True group?
Mike Welkin: Lisa Freeman and I run it. She has been my partner since the beginning. She runs the store and does the ordering and all the freaky food stuff like the bug cookies. Her and I together are sort of the idea guys. But I build all the art and do all the artwork. It’s been 6 years, so a lot of the artists we’ve collaborated have come and gone. Colin Batty does about half of the artwork [for sale and display] in there and he is an insanely incredible artist and sculptor. He is a friend of mine from back in our animation days and sends us pieces from Manchester, UK where he now lives. He’d kept this place alive. Any time where I’ve been thinking ‘well, okay, let’s bag it up,’ he’d send me something that made me go ‘we need to keep this place open just so people can see his artwork. It is a crime he is not more recognized.’
FPM: Does he do the Bigfoot paintings?
Mike Welkin: I do those. I actually take thrift store paintings and paint on top of them. I like that because here’s a painting that nobody wants for 5 bucks in a thrift store and I’m not interested in painting landscapes like that, I’m more interested in painting a monster, or a robot, or explosions or all that stuff.
I call this non-elective retroactive collaboration.
FPM: Non-elective retroactive collaboration?
Mike Welkin: Right. You know, as an artist, I would be thrilled if someone did that with a painting of mine. It’s a little also ‘finder’s keepers,’ because I buy them and I paint on them. But I also do tons of my own artwork. But there’s something really satisfying about taking a boring seascape and putting an octopus or a kraken or a zombie coming out of the water; juxtaposing a hotel painting with some crazy story. That was something that just spun out of this place. I probably would have never had started that project if we didn’t have [the Peculiarium] all it’s wallspace. I’ll have a whole new show of those at the Arbor Commons Coffee Shop on Killingsworth and Interstate [in Portland, Oregon] starting November 5th.
FPM: Is the Peculiarium more art gallery or oddities museum on origin?
Mike Welkin: I guess it’s an art gallery on steroids. We have over 40 different artists in there, but it’s more than just walls and art, there’s sounds and interaction and jokes and writing. It started as ‘let’s just do the stuff that we like and do it all in one place.’ I had a lot of friends in film and animation, so a lot of what you see in there is leftovers from old low budget movies or from Burning Man. I knew a lot of people who would call me when they found out I had a place to say “hey man, can I put this [huge B-Movie prop] in the Peculiarium? I’m tripping over it here at home.’
FPM: Can you tell me about the buried alive simulator you built?
Mike Welkin: You know, we just sit there and spitball and go ‘what freaks people out.’ [Live burial] is one of those things that really strikes a nerve with people.
FPM: Did you really have to film it from inside a grave to get that perspective?
Mike Welkin: No, we just went down to Sauvie Island and dug a hole and put a GoPro in it. We try to entertain ourselves first.
FPM: Is the museum or the sale of prints the main source of income for the Peculiarium?
Mike Welkin: We look at our books daily and [sales are split] literally half website and [the sale of] re-purposed stuff and then half on tickets to the gallery.
FPM: Are you feeling a push from the way this neighborhood has changed?
Mike Welkin: Well, we are definitely feeling like the funkiness has left from this neighborhood with all the joggers and the stroller set who have no sense of humor. So we want to move someplace funkier. The bottom line is we want a bigger space. We have to leave this location. We’ve outgrown it.
FPM: So you’re leaving because you need a larger space and not because the price of rent is affecting you in a changing neighborhood?
Mike Welkin: It’s going to be a two-pronged approached. We will keep this one open as long as we can and have a bigger space to make larger exhibits. Because that’s the difference between a gift shop and a gallery. This isn’t just both. You can actually go here and get spooked or have a laugh or whatever. We want to do more of that. The proof that this place is so popular is that Portland has a ton of great places to eat, but you can only eat so much, and you can only shop so much. Hopefully we’re somewhere in between.
FPM: So what’s the new location going to be like?
Mike Welkin: We’re hoping it’s going to be in Portland, but maybe it’ll be in Vancouver, B.C. That’s a pretty diverse city up there. It would probably take another five years to establish it. So maybe it will stay in Portland.