HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - Portland artists Allison McClay and James Nielson work on one of six large murals covering four warehouses on Northwest Commercial Street in downtown North Plains. The murals should be complete by the first week of October.Downtown North Plains is getting a splash of color.

Two months ago, Portland artists Allison McClay and James Nielson began painting six large murals over four old warehouses on Northwest Commercial Street — between Northwest Main Street and Northwest 314th Avenue — depicting historical North Plains-centric settings over roughly 9,000 square feet of metal walls.

In February, city officials announced they were offering $10,000 to the artist or artists who could paint the first city-commissioned public arts mural — and McClay answered the call.

"I think it'll change the texture of our downtown area," said North Plains Mayor David Hatcher. "Instead of just big metal sheds, we have artwork … (and) now we're talking about adding more murals to other buildings."

But in the meantime, with three of six sections mostly complete, McClay is working hard to meet her Oct. 1 deadline.

"I could work on it forever, so I have to cut myself off at some point," McClay said, noting how the city's original deadline of July 1 — in time for an unveiling ceremony during the annual Elephant Garlic Festival — had to be extended because the first artist the city hired didn't end up working out. And because McClay got a late start, no new deadline was ever given.

But McClay is no stranger to painting murals. She set a goal for herself to beat the rainy season, despite the size and scope of the undertaking.

The city's runner-up choice previously painted several murals in Portland and one in Beaverton, she said, "but nothing of this size" — which is why McClay asked for help from Nielson, her sister's partner.

A trained programmer, Nielson had only dabbled with art, he said, producing mostly sketch drawings, not painting.

But between the two, the enormous murals have started taking shape — and city residents seem to love them.

"We get a lot of people walking by, making comments and offering critiques," McClay said. "It's 99 percent positive."

The 1 percent, Nielson said, comes from a man who specifically doesn't appreciate the lack of detail on one particular mural that contains a thresher, a machine that separates grain.

"I had never seen one before, so I had to look at old photographs," McClay said.

"Blurry old photographs," Nielson added.

The photographs, provided by local historian Melvin VanDomelen, were examples of what the city indicated it wanted to see in the murals, McClay said.

"The city had it all planned out — what they wanted where," she said. "But when you're working on a painting, you're not used to people walking by and commenting.

"There's a protectiveness I have to remember not to have because I'm painting this for the people who live here," she continued. "I'm not taking it home when I'm done."

So McClay and Nielson take the comments as constructive, for the most part, they said, and continue to paint five days per week, sometimes 10 hours a day, in the sun.

And though they both have developed exceptional tans, they still try to avoid direct UV contact by working in whatever shade they can find as the sun moves across the sky.

"I wasn't sure how I was going to do it when I started, but that just sort of made sense," McClay said.

Nielson estimates he's drinking four large bottles of water a day to stay hydrated, sometimes working shirtless. And when it's 90 degrees, he said, "I skip those days."

But the local North Plainers have noticed and sometimes bring the painters treats, they said.

They get 10 or more acknowledgements a day from passersby, they said, with interactions ranging from a simple conversation to a honk as residents drive down Commercial Street.

"People bring us drinks," McClay said. "One person even brought us muffins and kombucha."

Across the street at the North Plains Market and Liquor Store, owner Kim Han appreciates the change of scenery.

"It's beautiful," she said. "It's a big change for the town."

According the city's website, the mural project is all part of the city's efforts to revitalize the downtown corridor. And now McClay feels a part of that effort.

"I definitely feel more invested in North Plains," she said. "It's been an overwhelming project, but we're working on it. We're getting there."

By Travis Loose
Reporter, Hillsboro Tribune
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