While at an art fair 40 years ago, Niki Butcher had a hunch about what people really wanted to buy. Yes, many of them purchased her husband Clyde’s prints of West Coast woods and mountains, but there was a clear market for happy, simple works of art. “I realized the stuff that sells were teddy bears, ballerinas, and seashells,” she recalls. Already an accomplished photographer, Clyde offered to take some images of such subjects. But Niki didn’t want to change the trajectory of her husband’s nature photography, so she did it herself. Sure enough, at the next art fair, her photos of teddy bears, ballerinas, and seashells sold quickly and just as well as she thought.
A few months later, she was selling those photos at a street art fair on Miami Beach when she glanced over at the Art Deco buildings along Ocean Drive. At the time, developers were looking to raze the historic hotels. They were shabby and drab, unloved relics of another era. “They were painted chocolate brown, hospital green—such ugly colors—and I started daydreaming about the colors they should be,” says Niki. “I thought, that’s what I want to do.”
Niki took black and white photos of the buildings, printed them out, and hand-painted the images with Q-tips and cotton balls, the same process used to hand-paint photographs before the invention of color film. For her entire adult life, she had been the wife of a famous artist, but she was on the brink of becoming one herself.
These days, Niki, now 76, is renowned for her efforts colorizing black and white photos, mostly in pastels as soft as beachfront sunrises. This year, she’ll show her work at the J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel, in an exhibit slated to open November 13. Their daughter and manager of the Clyde Butcher gallery in Venice, Jackie Butcher Obendorf, predicts this will finally be the year that her mother earns the fame she deserves. “My dad is so popular now and it’s so overwhelming,” Obendorf says. “We have such a huge business with him. It’s hard for her to find time for her and her art. With the Ding Darling show coming up, my mom’s going to paint new pictures, and I’m hoping it inspires her to keep going.”
In actuality, Niki can’t remember a time when she wasn’t an artist. She grew up in Palo Alto, California, and notes that everyone in the area was encouraged to express their individuality, a phenomenon she attributes to either the influence of Stanford University or an innate Californian sensibility. “I didn’t even think about it, whether I was good at it or not. In the society I was raised, you were expected to be you.” The push was so strong, a fundamental question never occurred to her, one that would trouble her family later: How do you make money from art?
She sold her first painting at age 16 and majored in art at the local junior college. It was during this time that she met Clyde through a friend. He was at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, 200 miles south, so for their first date, he came up and spent the weekend in a travel trailer parked behind her parents’ home.
Clyde had been into nature photography since he was 8 years old, when he’d run around the woods surrounding the Kansas City golf course near where he grew up. When he was 10, his parents took him on vacation to the West, and he discovered an obsession for photographing the Rocky Mountains. With Niki and her family, Clyde found compatriots in their appreciation for art and the outdoors. Clyde and Niki would often head to the woods and call it a date. “We didn’t have any money, so we took walks on the beach, in the redwood forest, or downtown,” Niki recalls. “We didn’t do anything that cost money.”
They married in 1964. Clyde graduated with a degree in architecture and had early success working for a company building and photographing architectural models. But with a downturn in the economy in 1969, Clyde lost his job. On a whim, he brought the nature photos he had been taking for years to an art fair, where he learned that he could make more money with photography than he could as an architect. Not long after, he was selling his photos to department stores. Clyde switched to color photography, and his popularity exploded when he began putting his images inside of clocks. It became a multimillion-dollar business with 200 employees. At one point, they figured Clyde’s work was in one out of every 10 homes in the country.
Clyde wasn’t the only artist behind his photos. For every frame he snapped, Niki was likely there too, helping to pick the perfect time of day and the location of the camera. “Most black and white photography is either masculine or feminine, but my father’s work is both because he works so well with my mom,” Obendorf says. “He knows visual space from architecture, and she knows fine art, lighting, texture, and composition. For his early work, they would be out there for hours, working together to figure out the right time of day to take the shot. They’re like one person.”
Niki had been pulled in to manage the business, but it was a role she hated, her free spirit fighting the need to tell people what to do. In 1972, Niki recalls, their marriage was falling apart, the stress of the company proving to be too much for both of them. They decided to return to nature. With a son and daughter who were still toddlers, they lived on sailboats, in a pop-up trailer in the Redwoods, almost never an actual house. They spent months in Mexico and, even as Clyde was running a massive company, they lived on a sailboat moored in the harbor, with no running water or electricity. “We would come home from this big business and get in this little rowboat and be in this different world,” says Niki. “It saved our relationship, because it was nature.”
They sold their portion of the company in 1977 and moved to Florida in 1980. Clyde built a sailboat, and they took it to the Dry Tortugas, the Bahamas, and then up to Fort Lauderdale. They soon ran out of money, and, now based out of Southwest Florida, Clyde went back to where he started: Selling work at art fairs, traveling the east coast in the summers to hit the most profitable ones. He lived out of a Wells Cargo trailer, sleeping on a bench he built in the back.
That’s when Niki began taking those commercially viable photos of teddy bears and the like, so that her husband didn’t have to remain on the road all summer. When she had her moment of inspiration at the Miami Beach art fair, Clyde helped Niki start her project. She’d take the photos, and then Clyde would develop and process the pictures. They’d dry mount them, and then she’d color them with oil paints she had stored in a box since college. Her new work was more artistically satisfying—and it sold well and won ribbons at art fairs.
Clyde relished carrying her gear to a shoot for a change. “I thought it was great because she had always been into art,” he says. “She could have a venue for what she did.”
Those good times when both of them were having success lasted three years, until a drunk driver killed their son, Ted, in 1986. This tragedy is something Niki can barely discuss. “There are no words for the sting of the sorrow and the loss,” she says. “I have no words for what that feels like.”
The weekend after the accident, they were due to attend an art festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and they went anyway, the two of them in separate booths, far away physically and mentally. When they returned home, Niki recalls that Clyde escaped to the Everglades and barely left. He took his color equipment to the dump one day and watched it get crushed, vowing to only take the kind of black and white shots that he felt defined him better. His customers loved that the ancient trees Clyde so beautifully captured could be found in the United States and, for some, not far down the road in the Everglades. In 1993, the success of this black and white series led the couple to buy property east of Everglades City and open the Big Cypress Gallery, where they began displaying their works. Their daughter joined the business in 1999 and they opened a second gallery in Venice.
At Big Cypress, they conduct regular swamp walks for guests, which have included notables such as President Jimmy Carter. In 2017, Clyde, who’s now 78, had a stroke. When he goes into the swamp these days with his walker, he can’t carry his large-format cameras, so he’s switched to digital. Still there to help her husband, Niki hopes Clyde inspires others with disabilities to seek out nature. “Clyde takes his walker where no man has gone before,” she says.
Sometimes, doing what they do seems to be riddled with new challenges, like when Clyde’s camera breaks after being exposed to brackish and salt water. Niki occasionally thinks about slowing down, but she and Clyde both quickly dismiss that. “There are days when I just want to retire,” she admits. “And then I think, no, this is keeping me alive and on the earth.”